There’s a moment in “Jesus Henry Christ” when a character is said to be in poor health. When asked what happened to him, the answer is “The Bulls won the championship.” We flash back to 1998, where a lisping ethnic caricature sits on a couch; his shoulders slumped, defeated as the television blares news of the Bulls’ championship triumph. The joke, we’re meant to assume, is that there were serious repercussions to Chicago winning that championship, though we never exactly see what happens to our doomed, ultimately irrelevant character. Later, we learn in another cutaway occurring a half hour later for no apparent reason, that the man left the house to take out the garbage, only to absorb a bullet to the head, ostensibly fired in the air by an overzealous Bulls fan.
So the joke… yeah.
In 1998, the Chicago Bulls, led by the league’s MVP and top scorer Michael Jordan, league-leading rebounder Dennis Rodman, and Hall of Fame forward Scottie Pippen, took home their third straight NBA championship, and sixth in an eight year span. Michael Jordan cemented this dynasty in typically-grandiose fashion, nailing the game-winning shot and scoring 45 points despite suffering the aftereffects of a serious flu, and without teammate Pippen, who had re-aggravated a serious back injury. While their opponent, the Utah Jazz, was considered formidable opposition, most expected the Bulls to easily take home the title. The Bulls would soon disband, Jordan and coach Phil Jackson heading into retirement as the league entered an extended lockout.
All that information is called “context.” It can be necessary if you want to tell a joke. In “JHC,” the relevance of the team being the Chicago Bulls, of Chicago fans being violent, over-entitled brats who would fire guns in celebration, of the championship being the end of a legacy? It’s lost, the background information used as tasteless garnish for a gag involving a man being shot in the head. This is not about the Bulls, this is not about Michael Jordan, and this is not about 1998. This is about people who know how to tell a joke, and people who know how to tell a story. These things can go hand in hand. Neither are in play during Dennis Lee‘s directorial effort.
“JHC” is a film festival staple, the quirky coming-of-age film. The difference this time is that our lead Henry (Jason Spevack) is a boy genius, at ten wise enough to entertain thoughts of higher education. Henry was born from a sperm donation to liberal firecracker Patricia (Toni Collette), but he has grown curious about his role in the universe. His quest takes him to the doorstep of college professor Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), who has penned a book about nature vs. nurture that has labeled his 12 year old daughter Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) a “lesbo” by her peers. Together, they learn lessons about family, about our lineage, and about home being wherever our heart lies. Cutting edge stuff.
Lee tries to liven his story with interstitials, flashback cutaways not like a particularly bad episode of “The Simpsons.” The lack of insight these mini-gags bring to the characters seems more akin to “Family Guy,” but that show at least has a sense of pop culture savvy. “JHC” exists in a world oblivious to cultural mores or even regular human behavior. Characters never speak to each other, they only trade monologues, like when Jason shares his manifestos that paint him less like a precocious child and more like a future cult leader, or when Slavkin vomits bullet point philosophies gift-wrapped for the exasperated Patricia to volley back. Collette and Sheen are skilled actors who have created compelling characters in challenging, rich films. Here, they are reduced to cartoons. Not even Pixar quality. Maybe something in the vein of “Veggie Tales.”
Lee, who was part of the Tribeca All-Access Program that helped develop the script (on a dare?), shows a tin-ear for realistic human behavior, and even more woeful incapabilities with punch lines, underlining gags with gory comeuppances or sitcom reaction shots. It would be acceptable, on a marginal level, if the final shot of “Jesus Henry Christ” was a pull-back into outer space, revealing the film existing on an alien planet where this sort of artificial behavior was the norm, but “JHC” is both alien and depressingly earthbound. Lee previously directed another picture, “Fireflies In The Garden,” which remains unreleased in America for the last three years despite boasting Ryan Reynolds and Julia Roberts in the cast. Let it never be unearthed on these shores. [D-]