Jesus Henry Christ is preposterous, pretentious, venomous,
and maddeningly unclear about what it wants to say and how it wants to say it.
Much like the philosophy of art for art’s sake, the film’s quirkiness has no
intrinsic value; it’s weird simply for the sake of being weird. We’re tempted to
think that it takes a moral position, given the narrative usage of feminism,
militant antiestablishment rhetoric, atheism, racial and gay intolerances,
nontraditional family values, and the rewards and deficits that come from being
a genius. In fact, the story is divorced from pretty much any sense of morality;
all the beliefs listed above are not examined convincingly and are included
primarily to be made fun of. In spite of all this, the film ends on such a
mechanically upbeat note that it might as well have served as the ending to a
Adapted by writer/director Dennis Lee from his own student film, Jesus Henry
Christ tells the story of Henry James Herman (Jason Spevack), who was conceived
in a Petri dish and born to an activist mother named Patricia (Toni Collette),
with whom he’s on first-name terms. At nine months old, he was already able to
speak complete sentences. At five, he was expelled from kindergarten for
questioning the point of telling the teacher a word that begins with Y. Now at
age ten, he has been expelled from a Catholic high school for heresy, having
caused a riot after self-publishing a manifesto proclaiming that there is no
God. A straight-A student, he remembers absolutely everything he sees and hears.
He can speed read an entire book in a matter of minutes and can quote entire
passages; he can even tell you what page and paragraph the passage was on.
He narrates a lengthy flashback sequence in which he details his mother’s
family. It’s during this sequence in which Lee demonstrates how wildly wrong he
is in what he believes is funny. On her tenth birthday, Patricia (Hannah Brigden)
witnessed her mother burn to death when she tried to light the candles on the
cake; her sleeve caught fire, and her husband tried to dowse them out with his
glass of booze. Over time, Patricia endured the deaths of most of her brothers,
and with the exception of the one with AIDS, all of them died very, very
stupidly. The surviving brother dodged the draft by fleeing to Canada, leaving
Patricia alone to care for her chauvinist father, Stan (Frank Moore). He’s in
possession of a gold-plated Zippo lighter that prevented a bullet from killing
him. He wanted nothing more than to pass it down to one of sons. Now Henry is in
possession of it.
Henry knows he doesn’t have a father, although he doesn’t know the reason
why. In a needlessly bizarre scene, Stan explains to Henry, in Spanish, that
he’s a test-tube baby and that a little bribery led to the discovery of Henry’s
half-sister. Here enters twelve-year-old Audrey O’Hara (Samantha Weinstein).
Ever since unwittingly being the subject of her father’s psychology book, she
has been mercilessly teased and tormented by her classmates. As a result,
nothing but ice water flows through her veins. As for her father, Dr. Slavkin
O’Hara (Michael Sheen), he’s consumed with so much stress and guilt that he
spends the entire film in a medication-induced fog. Henry enters his life
convinced that he’s his long lost father, a prospect O’Hara finds promising for
a new book.
But is he Henry’s father? Is he Audrey’s? Over a decade ago, when he was
diagnosed with testicular cancer and decided to harvest his sperm, he discovered
that his wife was having an affair – with his German-accented doctor, no less.
The resulting paternity case and the ensuing legal and financial conversations
are occasionally interrupted by awkward scenes in which Henry and Audrey form a
begrudging friendship. Needless to say, it’s harder for Audrey to let someone in
than it is for Henry. All paves the way for a surprisingly conventional and
borderline saccharine ending, which the rest of the film had not been leading up
to. This sudden change in tone, while certainly much more pleasant, was
jarringly inconsistent and inappropriate.
The title, as you may have surmised by now, is a play-on-words of the popular
swear, “Jesus H. Christ!” which is repeatedly exclaimed by various characters
throughout the film. It’s not especially funny. It is, however, a lot more
tolerable than the recurring appearance of a radical Muslim convert who, despite
being white, speaks in an exaggerated black street accent and spouts vile racial
slurs about white people. Not only is this not funny, it’s actually kind of
insulting. What point is Lee making here? Jesus Henry Christ
has no ambition other than to be bizarre, esoteric, and in some cases, highly
inflammatory. It displays attitudes and social movements, but never once does it
actually say anything meaningful about them. Like a school bully, it mocks and
torments simply because it can.