Monday, April 23, 2012

Dennis Lee Makes A Wes Anderson Film: Jesus Henry Christ

The Good: Amazing acting, Moments of humor, Interesting characters.
The Bad: Light on plot, Lack of spark, Pacing issues.
The Basics: Jesus Henry Christ is an incredibly funny film that puts a boy on a quest to find his father and, in the process, discovers his family is much more eclectic than he ever knew.

Wes Anderson is one of the writers and directors whose works I generally enjoy, but it is hard not to admit that he has a pretty specific niche that he mines pretty heavily. Wes Anderson writes and directs drama films that he populates with quirky characters and interesting actors playing roles that are usually unconventional for them. He has awkward moments between the characters and he may well be the king of the anticlimax. Ultimately, Wes Anderson films are mostly about how characters relate and interact, as opposed to something actually happening.

Dennis Lee, the writer and director of Jesus Henry Christ, is clearly following the Wes Anderson mold with his new film. Jesus Henry Christ is currently in theaters in limited release and it has the look, feel and many other elements of Wes Anderson’s works, like The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!). Unfortunately, Lee’s work, while stylish, often funny and amazingly well-acted does not have the spark of greatness that The Royal Tenenbaums did. Even so, Jesus Henry Christ is very much worth seeing.

After a series of personal disasters when she was ten years-old, Patricia Herman grows into being a social activist. While at a rally, she has an epiphany and is artificially inseminated shortly thereafter, much to her father’s chagrin. Soon after, Henry James Herman is born and he remembers everything he sees. At ten years old, Henry becomes curious about his father and his grandfather, Stan, provides him with some useful information. Stan does not know the identity of Henry’s father, but he does know who Henry’s half-sister is.

Henry encounters the morose Audrey, subject of her father’s book which outs her long before she even knows if she is a lesbian, and uses logic to determine they share a mutual father. As Henry and Audrey start establishing an awkward friendship, Henry spends time with college professor and author Dr. Slavkin O’Hara. Slavkin quickly realizes Henry is a protégé and sees him as a potential subject for his next book, until Henry introduces Slavkin to Patricia and they work to sort out their odd relationships.

Jesus Henry Christ is a lot more enjoyable than it is objectively good. The film is clever and often laugh-out-loud funny, but it still lacks a certain spark. Wes Anderson, for example, enhances the mood of key scenes within many of his movies through the use of popular music. Dennis Lee does not do that – and I give him a lot of credit for not mimicking Anderson in every way – but the result is that the film is populated by awkward characters in an incredibly awkward string of events with more of a pace that seems like real life, as opposed to something fantastical or incredible.

The stylistic elements that Dennis Lee uses in Jesus Henry Christ are fun, though. So, for example, when Stan and Henry have a covert meeting, the colors shift and the movie begins to feel a lot like Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. They speak in Spanish in that scene and it has a very different – and interesting to watch – flavor to it. Moreover, the opening narration is very engaging as the story of the deaths of most of Patricia’s family is detailed. Jesus Henry Christ is very easy to watch, but because it is often slow and does not appear to be moving toward any sort of profound resolution, it is hard to get excited about watching.

Even so, Jesus Henry Christ is a wonderful movie for what is there. In addition to being very stylish, the movie is funny. As Henry and Slavkin sit burning copies of the book that ostensibly ruined his daughter’s life, the movie takes on a weird buddy comedy type feel that allows the characters to feel out their chemistry for one another. In a similar fashion, when Audrey and Henry interact, the scenes have a darkness – Audrey is a seriously depressed and maligned character – that quickly evolves into something a lot deeper. The longer they interact, the more Henry and Audrey seem to find what both of them have been missing: a sense of family.

As well, Jesus Henry Christ manages to include some seriously formulaic elements without feeling forced or formulaic. At the outset of Jesus Henry Christ, Patricia’s mother dies on Patricia’s tenth birthday, the result of Stan’s lighter (and his alcohol). Now, Henry is turning ten and Patricia finds herself paralyzed when it comes time to light the candles on his birthday cake. So, if the film is going to have character growth and development for Patricia, it makes sense that by the end of Jesus Henry Christ, Patricia will overcome her fear and use the lighter to light the candles. Lee’s actual resolution to this problem is surprisingly smart and symbolic of how Patricia’s life has been full of forced change. In other words, the circumstances by which the formulaic plot element is satisfied hardly seems like a formulaic plot moment.

Jesus Henry Christ is also an amazing achievement on the acting front. Toni Collette gives a solid performance as Patricia and Frank Moore’s portrayal of Stan was so good that I was absolutely shocked to discover that I had never seen him in any other movie before this! But more than those two veterans of film, Jesus Henry Christ goes a long way to disproving the old notion that child actors are the death knell of a production. Samantha Weinstein is amazing as Audrey. Playing a bullied twelve year-old, Audrey delivers some of the film’s wittiest lines (“Not for me it isn’t.”) and Weinstein makes the character seem entirely viable. Weinstein’s tightrope is to play a deeply sarcastic young person without ever seeming bratty and she manages to land it perfectly.

Weinstein plays frequently opposite Jason Spevack, who is the young star of Jesus Henry Christ. As Henry, Spevack has to play a child prodigy and that means he has to speak in an articulate manner well beyond his years. Spevack gets his mouth around all the tough dialogue and manages not to come across as stiff in most of the film, which is makes him a real treat to watch.

The real knockout on the acting front in Jesus Henry Christ is Michael Sheen. Sheen has long illustrated an ability to play comedic roles, one of the most notable ones being Wesley Snipes in the fourth season of 30 Rock (reviewed here!). But as Slavkin in Jesus Henry Christ, Sheen taps into an entirely different sense of wit and he delivers some hilarious lines and great reaction shots that are entirely different from his prior performances, like that of Wesley Snipes. Sheen is so distinct from any other character he has played in the role of Slavkin that my wife continued to disbelieve that it was Sheen performing until the closing credits!

Ultimately, Jesus Henry Christ is a very easy movie to recommend for audiences to watch. It is smart and surprisingly fun. But, it is not the type of film that is going to light the world – or the box office – on fire.

For other works with Toni Collette, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Little Miss Sunshine
In Her Shoes
About A Boy
Changing Lanes


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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