If movies were judged purely on their level of forced quirkiness, then Jesus Henry Christ would be in the running for the best of the year. Thankfully, we don’t live in that world and this movie will be quickly forgotten. This is another one of those unfortunate post-millennium comedies that Wes Anderson may not have made, but has to answer for. Much like how Quentin Tarantino spawned dozens of infinitely inferior pop-culture charged crime comedies, Anderson’s instant cult status bred a generation of filmmakers seduced by his deadpan whimsy who crank out movies that are more designed than directed. It’s ironic for a filmmaker who can’t seem to stop telling stories about fractured families that he’s spawned a sea of inferior children who he probably isn’t too fond of. Thankfully his films continue to stand out against shameless Xeroxes like Jesus Henry Christ, a movie that sneaks its best joke into the title, and even that one isn’t particularly good.
Dennis Lee’s second feature (following up the almost unwatchable family melodrama Fireflies in the Garden) is about a 10-year-old child prodigy named Henry (Jason Spevack) with photographic memory and the ability to complete a college entry exam in two minutes. Henry was born to single mother Patricia Herman (Toni Collette), who lost her mother and four brothers when she was a child and grew up embittered to the idea of families with a dink of a father who is essentially a poor man’s Royal Tenenbaum and not worth discussing. She was a political activist to all liberal causes though, so decided to have a test tube baby as personal act of rebellion. Her kid turned out to be a genius who eventually worked out that his father is Professor Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), a man who donated his sperm years ago when his doctor cruelly claimed he had testicular cancer as part of his plan to seduce O’Hara’s wife. However, O’Hara did manage to shoot out a daughter named Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) before the marriage collapsed, who he raised as a sociological experiment on sexual identity. Henry brings these four lost souls together to form a fucked up makeshift family custom made for some semi-dark quirky comedy.
The main problem with Jesus Henry Christ is that while Lee may have decided on the style of his movie early on, he never quite figured out the tone. Early scenes outlying the many deaths in Patricia’s family have a very dark, arch, and cynical edge to the humor, while at other times he seems to be trying find weepy emotions in his collection of one-note damaged goofballs. The movie is all over the place, clearly created by a filmmaker more interested in showing off just what a clever director he can be rather than someone with a story to tell or even something to say. As a visual stylist he’s even less assured, trying way to hard to show off his skills with-ever roving cameras and a near limitless supply of reverse zooms that add little to the storytelling. That said, he throws so many jokes at the wall that a few stick and the rigid adherence to the Wes Anderson playbook at least assures that the movie looks nice and moves along at a brisk pace. However, when that’s the best you can say about a filmmaker’s abilities, it’s not a good sign. Particularly for someone who clearly considers himself some sort of smartypants artist.
The main factor that makes the movie bearable is a cast far too good for this material. Toni Collette may have played at least five too many bitter single moms at this point, but she is quite good at it and knows how to balance comedy and pathos well. Michael Sheen is gradually turning into a fantastic semi-comedic character actor of the Stanley Tucci school and gets far more out of his role than he should. But even better than Collette and Sheen are the kids, Jason Spevack and Samantha Weinstein, who underplay play their roles in monotone with bursts of emotion in performances that are mercifully free of cutesy kid acting. The entire cast is strong enough to suggest that Lee at least has some skill with casting and working with actors, so perhaps once he stops trying to emulate other filmmakers and do his own thing he might have some promise. Although “might” is the key word there since all of these folks are so talented that they probably didn’t need much direction.
Jesus Henry Christ is definitely a disposable derivative effort that will receive a resounding round of apathy at the box office, but at least it isn’t painful to watch. Part of Lee’s constant desire to make his presence known behind the camera thankfully involves zippy pacing that never dwells on a bad joke or failed attempt to massage the tear ducts for long. Plus, the actors are always compelling even when the script isn’t and enough jokes land to keep the crickets at bay. As far as bad Wes Anderson knock-offs go, this movie is in the upper echelon. It’s still kind of crap, but crap that’s passably enjoyable. It’s a failed movie that won’t ruin your night. Now that’s a poster quote for the desperate.