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'Three Christs': A Too-Simple Film About The Messiah Complex

<em>Three Christs</em>, No Waiting: Joseph (Bradley Whitford), Leon (Peter Dinklage) and Clyde (Walton Goggins) in Jon Avnet's film.
IFC Films
Three Christs, No Waiting: Joseph (Bradley Whitford), Leon (Peter Dinklage) and Clyde (Walton Goggins) in Jon Avnet's film.

Three Christs begins by listing four barbarous techniques used on psychiatric patients in the 1950s and then introduces its protagonist, who has a battered face and is preparing for a disciplinary hearing. This introduction appears to forecast a rough series of flashbacks for both the viewers and Dr. Alan Stone (Richard Gere). Ultimately, though, the movie goes too easy on us and him.

In 1959, Michigan's state mental hospitals did actually hold three men who believed themselves to be Jesus. Social psychologist Milton Rokeach decided to treat them together, and later wrote a book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Rokeach is the basis for the fictionalized Stone, and his book inspired the movie's glib and often clunky screenplay, written by Eric Nazarian and director Jon Avnet.

Three Christs benefits from a seasoned cast. Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, and Bradley Whitford clearly relish the acting exercise of impersonating people with schizophrenia. Charlotte Hope is also compelling as Becky, the recent psychology graduate who signs on as Stone's research assistant and stirs the erotic impulses of all three patients (and maybe her new boss, too).

Yet Gere doesn't relinquish his usual persona as Stone, who's portrayed as smart, benevolent, and movie-star suave. And Julianna Margulies can't do much with the underwritten role of Stone's wife Ruth, a chemistry professor who can joke that she's smarter than her husband, but is soon shown not to be wiser. As the administrators who alternately enable and undermine Stone, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Root, and Jane Alexander prove solid but unsurprising.

Stone opposes electroshocks, lobotomies, induced comas, and harsh anti-psychotic drugs, which audiences in 2020 likely join him in abhorring. That doesn't mean his alternative is persuasive. Talk therapy may not be enough to banish the delusions of Joseph (Dinklage), an opera buff who imagines himself a posh Briton; Clyde (Whitford), whose musical taste is for advertising jingles and who showers endlessly to banish an imagined stench; and Leon (Goggins), who suffers PTSD and mommy issues and makes the crudest overtures to Becky.

Inviting three Jesuses to the same session doesn't spark much psychological conflict or theological insight. Indeed, the self-proclaimed messiahs seem less bothered by each other's claims to divinity than by Stone's atheism, whose cause can be easily guessed. It's eventually spelled out, as is Stone's status as the parable's fourth saviour, a man who seeks to heal everyone around him. (He doesn't even have to visit an asylum to find people who need his touch: Both Ruth and Becky are candidates for deliverance.)

Avnet, whose best-known movie is the semi-comic Fried Green Tomatoes, lightens the mood with a few whimsical moments. The Chock Full o'Nuts Coffee jingle becomes an organ-driven hymn, and one of the Jesuses jokes that, "I thought I met the devil. He was an orderly in Kalamazoo." For such moments to work, though, spectators must accept a central conceit of most Hollywood movies about people experiencing mental illness: that they can be become lucid whenever the script requires it.

Stone finally decides that his approach was wrong, and sometimes unethical. Yet the filmmakers strive to place most of the blame elsewhere. Stone's miscalculations don't do much conspicuous damage, and the story's major disaster is pinned on someone else. Stone may not be any more of a Jesus than are his three patients, but Three Christs can't conceive of its silver-haired star as anything less than a saint.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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