A dysfunctional family saga with an obvious debt to The World According to Garp, Jesus Henry Christ begins misbehaving right out of the starting gate. In an early scene, our miserable heroine, Patricia, sees her mom disappear when lighting the 10-year-old’s birthday cake.
A sleeve catches on fire. Her drunken cop husband, a vile bully, unwisely throws his drink at the spreading blaze. Poof! Mom is engulfed in flames, gone in a column of smoke.
Patricia’s stupid, right-wing brothers die seconds later in a crazily violent car accident. AIDS takes another sibling. In the World According to Jesus Henry Christ, we are all terminal cases.
Patricia (Toni Collette) becomes a sour feminist who brings up a genius test tube baby, moving little Henry into a competitive university setting. Yes, more Garp riffs. Eventually, they encounter the oddballs who complete them: a dithering liberal academic (Michael Sheen) and his teen daughter, Audrey, a mean little complainer who goes off like a boiling teakettle when offended.
Making matters worse, Audrey is easily put off. Indeed, watching Jesus Henry Christ sometimes feels like being trapped in a building with a faulty fire alarm.
Later on, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) articulates what is presumably the film’s message, telling Henry (Jason Spevack), “Why would anyone want to be just like everyone?”
The film goes mushy in the final third, wrapping everything up with an unconvincing, big-hug resolution: Everyone, gay or straight, all God’s broken toys, should be free to be themselves.
The only problem is we don’t want to hug any of the characters at this point. Just flee from them. In the preceding hour, filmmaker Dennis Lee ( Fireflies in the Garden) has made a pretty good case that his harridans, Patricia and Audrey, should be reprogrammed, not set free. Both are grinding bellyachers. Sheen’s stuttering, absent-minded professor, Slavkin, is similarly off-putting.
Only veteran Canadian stage actor, Frank Moore, as Patricia’s dad, manages to be a credibly flawed, yet intriguing, ultimately winning character. Best of all, he’s funny: a useful ingredient in what is, after all, supposed to be a wacky family satire.
And that’s why Jesus Henry Christ is finally such a chore: All the film’s big early comic tableaux; the exaggerated pratfalls; family members exploding like fireworks; Patricia’s wild, histrionic blows against the establishment; Slavkin’s headachy fights with his vengeful, nihilistic daughter – not a one of them is funny, just wearying.
Viewers interested in exploring a comically corrosive family dynamic are invited to explore the old Fox TV sitcom, Arrested Development. For a more serious investigation of love, sex, death and violence within a family setting, try John Irving’s justifiably famous 1978 Garp novel.
But try not to be in the same room as Jesus Henry Christ. At the very least run when the first fire alarm sounds.
Jesus Henry Christ
Written and directed by Dennis Lee
Produced by Julia Roberts
Starring Toni Collette, Michael Sheen, Jason Spevack, Samantha Weinstein and Frank Moore
Special to The Globe and Mail