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Tribeca 2011: "Jesus Henry Christ" Is a Disappointment We Should Have Seen Coming

By Daniel Walber | Spout April 26, 2011 at 4:28AM

I suppose that this movie was inevitable. After a decade in which “500 Days of Summer,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” made great success out of quirky humor and eccentric characters, we were bound to some day find ourselves face to face with a miserably mediocre attempt to keep the creativity going. “Jesus Henry Christ” tries so hard to be original, cute, funny and unique but just ends up looking foolish and exhausted. Bad jokes, over-extended gimmicks and horribly written supporting characters whirl around your head as you attempt to find some sort of redeeming narrative. Unfortunately, not even the heavy handed voice-over helps with that.
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I suppose that this movie was inevitable. After a decade in which “500 Days of Summer,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” made great success out of quirky humor and eccentric characters, we were bound to some day find ourselves face to face with a miserably mediocre attempt to keep the creativity going. “Jesus Henry Christ” tries so hard to be original, cute, funny and unique but just ends up looking foolish and exhausted. Bad jokes, over-extended gimmicks and horribly written supporting characters whirl around your head as you attempt to find some sort of redeeming narrative. Unfortunately, not even the heavy handed voice-over helps with that.

Toni Colette is Patricia Herman, a single mother with a brilliant son (Jason Spevack) whose intellect is perhaps the most impressive in a century. His name is Henry James Herman, and he remembers everything he’s ever seen, from the moment of his birth. At ten years old, he finds out from his grandfather that he was conceived with the help of a sperm bank, and he finds his biological father: Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), a professor famous for a book he wrote about attempting to raise his daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), without society’s codes of gender. After a few complicated twists, the four characters discover each other and attempt to work out whether or not they are actually related. And hilarity is supposed to ensue.

The story itself is very complicated, and writer/director Dennis Lee doesn’t feel the need to slow down his barrage of wacky comedy to give you the space to keep track of things. There are entirely unnecessary characters, like the German doctor who was schtupping Dr. O’Hara’s wife and thereby calling the paternity of both kids into question. There’s also a ton of back-story for Patricia and her family, which occupies much of the film’s first act. We watch the deaths of her mother and all but one of her brothers, and while some of the sequence’s dark comedy does work quite well by the end of the film you’re wondering what the point was. The last brother does come back, but it just seems tacked on extraneously, hinting that the script needed one more edit before going into production.

It’s the endless quirky humor and caricatured supporting characters that should have been edited down to make space for more story and character development. This film has everything. There’s a conversation between Henry and his grandfather entirely in Spanish even though neither is a native speaker, simply to jazz up the scene. It goes on for far too long, as both actors stumble painfully through dialogue in a language clearly neither of them speaks. Then there’s the unfortunate sperm bank secretary, a white guy who thinks he’s black and proceeds to make himself and the entire movie seem ridiculous while simultaneously making the audience a bit uncomfortable.

In the end, I mostly just feel bad for the four lead actors. The two kids both do a bang up job of taking the cliché of “smart-talking kids” and giving well-rounded performances with real character depth. Toni Collette and Michael Sheen are also quite good and offer genuine humanity to roles that don’t have much of it on the page. They bring a certain skill with them into the film that definitely adds to a large number of otherwise failed moments of camp or quirk. Yet they are still unable to salvage the whole thing. Maybe the film is a lesson that a fast pace and a strong penchant for eccentricity are not enough to manufacture a real indie success. In the meantime, here’s hoping that Spevack and Weinstein get more work and that Colette and Sheen make some better choices.

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