The H is for Horrendous: Dennis Lee Sledgehammers Black Comedy
It’s hard to pin-point when exactly American independent cinema developed an unnecessary and unwarranted tendency for overblown quirkiness. Or, rather, when it became considered palatable. Surely, a zenith was reached when Diablo Cody received an Oscar for writing Juno (2007), that bloated Chernobyl blast of quirky dialogue that’s after-shocks are still presumably being uncovered, if Dennis Lee’s latest feature, Jesus Henry Christ is any indication. Its controversy courting title aside, in the religion of cinema, its most blasphemous element of all is that this groan inducing debacle calls itself a film.
We’re first introduced to Henry James Herman (Jason Spevak) and his mother Patricia (Toni Collette) as they discuss why Henry insists on calling his mother by her first name. Cue the precocious card, and we backtrack to the late 70’s to tell the tale of the demise of the Herman clan. On Patricia’s 10th birthday, her mother burns to death because of a freak accident. Her oldest brother dodges the draft. Her twin brothers have a strange freak accident. Her gay brother, well, guess how he meets his demise? And thus, the young Patricia is left to care for her father Stan Herman (Frank Moore). As a young woman, she becomes an outspoken feminist, we learn via photo montage. Then, in 1998, this independent feminist visits a sperm bank and births Henry. It’s apparent at nine months of age that Henry is a genius because he can speak fluent English. A mini-Tabloid sensation, Patricia insists that her Henry can never find out about this and she places her father in a nursing home. As Henry grows, we learn that he is has a videographic memory. Everything he sees or reads he remembers. Of course, he doesn’t fit in with his middling peers, causing minor conflicts, until, on his tenth birthday, his grandfather reveals to Henry his background and announces that he has discovered Henry’s half-sister.
Henry seeks out said half-sister, Audrey O’Hara (Samantha Weinstein) an adolescent currently in a living hell at school because her father, Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen) wrote a book about her, “Born Gay or Made That Way?” Henry thinks he has found his father, or has he? Patricia gets involved, Henry wants to go to the local University, his test scores are off the charts, and a multitude of various scenes that don’t advance the plot ensue.
There’s little use in pointing out all that’s unforgivably wrong with Jesus Henry Christ, but there are a few confounding elements. While there’s not one arguably decent moment that isn’t awkwardly cringe-inducing or eye-roll courting, Dennis Lee somehow manages to figure in a few offensive moments. At the film’s beginning, we learn that Henry had an uncle that died of AIDS that no one talks about, though we do get to witness said uncle being ridiculed by his brothers as a faggot. Flashbacks for the demise of all the other family members are available except for the gay uncle’s. Well, it’s because there’s one whopper of an exploitative tearjerker that Dennis Lee has in store for you by the film’s end. Here in 2012 it’s just a bit tiring to see HIV positive gay characters being used solely for the purposes of dramatic effect (not to mention that members of the LGBT community are subject to the same tragedies as their straight counterparts, even cancer).
But Dennis Lee doesn’t stop there. Another big treat is the receptionist at the sperm bank, a white man that acts black. And by acting, this means using incorrect English and a strange accent. Having adopted a black son, this sperm bank receptionist gets bent out of shape that it is brought to his son’s attention that he was adopted. Placing his hand on his heart, the receptionist says “I’m black here.” Let’s hope Joan Jett wasn’t operating under the same rationale. But beyond using gay people and black people as laughing/crying stock, Jesus Henry Christ is so incessantly imbecilic and harebrained that it’s simply just uncomfortable to sit through. Obviously trying to be cute, hip, or witty, every scene misses its mark, and there’s simply nothing that could save it. While it’s sad to see Ms. Collette in such an odious exercise, what’s worse is that this film is based on Lee’s 2003 short, which won a Silver Medal Student Academy Award. A deplorably maligned effort that grovels unashamedly for attention, Jesus H. Christ, what were they all thinking?