Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the actual events documented in the book “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by Social Psychologist Milton Rokeach, the film turns ground-breaking work from 60 years ago into a generic, somewhat bland big screen production … albeit with a talented cast. Director Jon Avnet (FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, 1991) co-wrote the script with Eric Nazarian, and they evidently believed the strong cast would be enough. Instead, we get what in days past would have been described as the TV movie of the week.
The actual story is quite interesting. Dr. Alan Stone (the dramatized version of Dr. Rokeach) is played here by a blond-haired Richard Gere. Dr. Stone comes to Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital in 1959 to study delusions of schizophrenics. Up to that time, we are informed that only extreme treatments were utilized, with minimal psychoanalysis practiced. Dr, Stone’s approach is through therapeutic treatments. Specifically, he arranges for group therapy consisting of only three patients – each who claims to be God/Christ.
Leon (Walton Goggins) demands to be addressed as God. He is the most perceptive of the three, though it’s quite clear, he mostly wants a friend. Joseph (Peter Dinklage) says he is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, though he speaks with a British accent, listens to opera, and wants only to return to England (a place he’s never been). Clyde (Bradley Whitford) claims to be Christ “not from Nazareth”, and he spends much of each day in the shower attempting to scrub away a stench that only he can smell.
The film is at its best, and really only works, when the doctor and the three patients are in session. It allows the actors to play off each other, and explores the premise of how they go about working through the confusion of having each believe the same thing … while allowing Dr Stone’s approach to play out. Where things get murky and clog up the pacing are with the number of additional characters who bring nothing of substance to the story. Stone’s wife Ruth (Julianna Margulies in a throwaway role) pops up periodically with alcoholic tendencies or a pep talk for hubby. Stone’s young research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “Game of Thrones”) seems to be present only as an object of desire for all the Gods, and to remind us of the era’s drug experimentation. And beyond those, Stone carries on a constant battle with hospital administrators played by Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, and a rarely-seen-these-days Jane Alexander (we shouldn’t forget she’s a 4-time Oscar nominee).
Alec Baldwin’s “I am God” from MALICE is still the best, but it’s always fun to watch a God complex … and this film offers four. The story is bookended with Dr Stone dictating his preparatory notes for a hearing on his professional actions, and the film does serve as a reminder that electroshock therapy and severe drug therapy are likely not as effective as empathy for many patients. It’s rare that God, Freud and Lenny Bruce are all quoted in the same film, but mostly this one just never pushes far enough.