[Review] – Jesus Henry Christ

17 May

Title: Jesus Henry Christ
Year: 2012
Director: Dennis Lee
Writer: Dennis Lee, based on his own short film
Starring: Jason Spevack, Toni Collette, Michael Sheen, Cameron Kennedy, Samantha Weinstein
MPAA Rating: PG-13, some violent images, language and smoking
Runtime: 91 min
IMDb Rating: 5.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 27%
Metacritic: 42

Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdom opened the Cannes Film Festival yesterday, and while I’m drooling for that film to be released already as I’m a huge fanboy of the director, I’m now getting to watch a film that seemed to be trying too hard to be something as quirky and charming and meticulously made as a Wes Anderson film. And while there are some parts of Dennis Lee‘s Jesus Henry Christ that are good enough, more often than not I found myself thinking that this film was always trying to be something premeditated instead of just growing organically, and it was hurt quite a bit by that. Lots of thing, for better or worse, get stamped with the label Anderson-esque, but the truth is there’s only one Wes Anderson; sorry, Mr. Lee.

The film is one of those colorful and offbeat dysfunctional family comedies. On the one hand you have Jason Spevack‘s Henry James Herman, a ten-year-old child genius who’s raised by his single mother, played by Toni Collette, who conceived him from a petri dish and he’s just a total misfit because of his great intelligence, which just got him a scholarship to university, actually. And on the other hand you have Audrey, who’s the daughter of a university professor who used her as a subject on a research book that made her a laughing stock at her school. That professor seems to be the sperm donor for Henry, so Audrey’s her half-sister. Suffice it to say that when they all find out about this their lives take a loop.

This is all, you’ll no doubt be quick to note, all full of excessive amounts of whimsy. The ten-year-old prodigy with the second highest IQ ever recorded who spoke for the first time when he was nine months, with the left-wing mother and academic sperm donor for a father, who can’t help but cause trouble because he’s so much smarter than those around him, and then going on a quest to find his biological father. You see how this could all fit in a Wes Anderson movie, except that Wes Anderson would have made something really worth our time with the material. Little Miss Sunshine also comes to mind, what with the dysfunctional family in the middle of it all and Ms. Collette’s presence.

Like I said, though, this all feels like it was forced, and as honest as the efforts by the people in it are the film ends up feeling quite unconvincing and I couldn’t get myself to like it because of that. The cast is actually quite strong, but the script is absolutely flimsy and because this one just goes so much for overly-stylized moments instead of deeper things it ends up getting hurt. Dennis Lee, who directed last year’s Fireflies in the Garden (which I gave a C+ to) fails as a director to make a feature-length version of a short film he made in 2003.

He fails because to me it always felt too much like was just too focussed on trying to recreate a sort of feel and vibe from movies we’ve seen before and not on something all of his own. By doing that, by going all-in on those stylized gags and such, he neglects the actual story, and by the time it’s done you’ll find yourself thinking that as good a cast as he may have assembled here it was all for naught. The story was just very thinly written, a lot will goes unexplained and, what’s worse, you won’t really care all that much that it did. By the time I was done with Jesus Henry Christ I honestly didn’t know what it was all about, what it tried to say and what themes it tried to explore.

Jason Spevack delivers a nice enough performance as Henry, showing some intelligence as a performance and acting out in a solid way all these quirky mannerisms Mr. Lee designs for him. Michael Sheen and Toni Collette also do their work to portray the parents they play here, and young Samantha Weinstein actually delivers a really strong performance as a teen who’s mad because her dad used her as the subject (and on the cover) of a book about whether kids are born gay or not, which means her whole school taunts her about it. So the cast definitely is solid, it’s just that the movie doesn’t know what to do with these characters; it could use someone half as smart as Henry to guide it in the right direction.

So yes, I was disappointed by Jesus Henry Christ. I love quirky little films, and I wanted this to be one of the good ones and not one of the wannabe ones, but instead we get a film that feels largely incoherent, never actually knowing what it wants to do because it’s too concerned to look a certain way. The gags are spelled out with whimsical dialogue but they carry no actual laughs, the camera-work and the colors used here try to create a certain vibe but they always miss the mark. It’s a pity, really, because of the actors involved, and they’re the ones that will make me give this film a grade better than I would otherwise award it. It only made me want to see Moonrise Kingdom even more, a quirky offbeat story done originally and by the guy that does them the best.

Grade: C


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