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Richard Gere follows one of his most vital and layered performances, in Norman, with one of his least convincing in Jon Avnet’s dramatically inert Three Christs. Based on an actual experimental treatment conducted in 1959, the film follows the then-unconventional therapy sessions of a compassionate doctor who believes that putting three mentally ill patients claiming the same religious identity together in one room will be more productive than pumping them full of electricity. Call it Lord, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Crucifix, this is a tedious slog that fails even to hit the emotional marks of the most formulaic nuthouse movie.
In a performance that’s all creased-brow thoughtfulness with nothing going on behind the eyes, Gere plays Dr. Alan Stone, who wants to work with paranoid schizophrenics, “Because they are so lonely.” In addition to being Dr. Empathy, he’s also a heck of a guy who speaks in an old-timey Brooklyn accent, digs Lenny Bruce because he’s a warped truth-teller, and gives his gorgeous, super-brainy wife Ruth (Julianna Margulies) occasional vigorous poundings.
Much is made of the fact that Ruth, the doc’s former research assistant, is smarter than he is but opted out of the field to teach chemistry. Still, she gets to say lines like, “Freud said there were two basic instincts, what were they again?” She also seems to develop a drinking problem for a minute, but a stern word or two fixes that before it’s had time to serve any narrative function. In fact, the entire character has no narrative function, though she does rock some stylish late-’50s frocks from costumer Tere Duncan, so all is not lost.
The script by Avnet and Eric Nazarian — remarkably lacking in illuminating psychological insight despite being based on the study that inspired it — frames the action with Dr. Stone recording notes for a dismissal hearing. So right off, we know something went awry.
He arrives at Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital determined to go a different route than the standard electroshocks, induced comas, drugs and lobotomies. Identifying two patients who claim to be Jesus and demand to be called by their “righteous name,” the doc sees the potential for a groundbreaking experiment. He enlists a new research assistant, Becky (Charlotte Hope), to round up a third would-be Christ, and the sessions begin, albeit with much prickly skepticism from hospital chief Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak).
The “three Christs” all show distinct personalities. Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage) is the product of an abusive upbringing, causing him to seek escape by affecting an English persona with a posh accent. Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford) is a jittery mess tormented by the death of his wife, fixating on an unclean stench only he can smell, which has him showering multiple times a day. Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins) was raised by a religious fanatic mother and suffered trauma in the military. His proximity to Becky sparks an instant sexual obsession, with some unfortunate talk of “finger-fornication” and “moist parts.”
We learn that Dr. Stone (a fictional character inspired by the study’s author, Dr. Milton Rokeach) got closest to experiencing someone else’s delusions by trying LSD, and in a pointless detour, Becky (who’s already started having erotic dreams about the boss) decides to try it too, under strict supervision. As the patients’ troubled histories come to light, personal issues of Dr. Stone and Becky also surface, pointing to a predictable wrap-up in which the doc concedes (in onscreen text) that although he hasn’t been able to cure the patients of their god-like delusions, they succeeded in curing him of his.
Along the way, the script keeps informing us that the group is making significant progress, while Dr. Stone deals with the inevitable institutional pushback. But aside from the three patients dropping their hostility and learning to socialize, the supposed breakthroughs seldom muster dramatic momentum or carry emotional weight, despite Jeff Russo’s syrupy score continually prodding us to feel something. Even the de rigueur tragedy — heralded all too clearly as soon as one of the Christs commands, “Come with me to the bell tower!” — packs scant pathos. Press notes refer to “darkly comic” moments, but those appear mostly to have been lost in translation.
For a movie drawn from a historical study that bucked against the inhumane treatment of mental illness at that time, Three Christs has a nagging bogus feel, with all three research subjects playing like stock screen lunatics. Dinklage is doing Royal Shakespeare Company asylum grandiloquence, Whitford is all twitches and tics, and Goggins seesaws between scornful superiority and broken weakness. Would that even one of them were drawn with enough nuance to make us care about them. But that simple requirement is beyond this god-awful bore of a movie.
Production companies: Brooklyn Films, Ostar Productions, HFG
Cast: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Charlotte Hope, Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Root, Jane Alexander, James Monroe Iglehart, Julian Acosta, Danny Deferrari, Chris Bannow
Director: Jon Avnet
Screenwriters: Eric Nazarian, Jon Avnet, based on The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, by Dr. Milton Rokeach
Producers: Daniel Levin, Molly Hassell, Jon Avnet, Dr. Aaron Stern
Executive producers: Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern, Bill Haber, Steven Haft
Director of photography: Denis Lenoir
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Costume designer: Tere Duncan
Music: Jeff Russo
Editor: Patrick Don Vito
Casting: Richard Pagano
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
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