Sometimes it's not the content of a joke that saves it, but the delivery. Such is the case with Jesus Henry Christ. The story and marketing materials make it look like a standard, assembly-line indie comedy about a dysfunctional family brought together by a precocious child, and the script tries to mine humor from things like screaming pregnancy scenes, talking babies and white guys who think they're black. It's a recipe that should sound iffy to even the people who enjoyed Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and (500) Days of Summer (which I, uh, did not), but the genuine sweetness and simplicity with which the material is executed is more than enough to keep the film afloat.
The main triumph of the film is casting. Not only has director/writer Dennis Lee scored Michael Sheen and the radiant Toni Collette to play the adults, he's discovered Jason Spevack and Samantha Weinstein, both of whom give performances that are refreshingly restrained. Although Weinstein has one or two unnecessary over-the-top moments, it's not a wacky gag that Henry (Spevack) is blessed with the ability to remember anything he reads. Aside from the talking-baby bit, Henry's intelligence is always the set up for a joke and never the punchline. Conversely, the movie treats Patricia Herman (Collette) and Dr. Slavkin O'Hara (Sheen) as equals, not morons. It would be equally tiring if the film was about nothing more than the kids showing their parents up, but it's not.
The four of them are brought together when Henry, conceived with a sperm donation, gets an unusual birthday gift from his wily grandfather Stan (Frank Moore): Stan tells him that he's located Henry's half-sister Audrey (Weinstein). Audrey has become infamous at her school for being the subject of her father's book Born Gay or Made That Way?, a study of gender-neutral upbringing. Henry finds Dr. O'Hara in a bookstore, decides he likes him, and proceeds to get accepted at Dr. O'Hara's university, at which point he reveals to both Slavkin and Patricia that Slavkin is his father.
Although the film coasts along at a nice pace on the strength of its characters, the story is not as successful. Flashbacks showing Patricia's troubled family life are...oddly violent and crude. Patricia's mother is killed lighting Patricia's birthday cake, and Patricia watches as her mother burns to death in the family living room. Later, Patricia's twin brothers die when one accidentally shoots the other after being called a "faggot," and the other brother dies of AIDS. Later, there is another accidental shooting death of a minor character in one of the movie's more awkward side jokes. All of these events (most of which are unusually bloody for a PG-13) make for awkward attempts at humor, although they probably make up less than ten minutes of the film.
Despite this awkward set up, Jesus Henry Christ doesn't have much of a conflict. Henry wants to know who his father is, to feel more of a connection to his family, and immediately succeeds in finding Slavkin, so Lee introduces the possibility that Slavkin might not be Audrey's father, so since Stan was only able to definitively identify Audrey as Henry's half-sister, a mystery party would be their real father. Later, Lee throws in the idea that Slavkin pulled strings at the university to get Henry in, so that Slavkin could write another book. Neither of these conflicts are particularly compelling, yet the film still manages to tie what strings it has together in a satisfying fashion that does a satisfying job of paying off Henry's goals despite very little standing in his way.
A collage of hand-drawn art and carefully "posed" photographs certainly fit the art style of a quirky indie comedy about family. The disc comes in a standard Amaray case (no holes punched in it) and a booklet promoting other Entertainment One releases.
The Video and Audio
Aliasing is the bane of this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Everything looks a little digital and jagged. Artifacting and posterization can be spotted in the darker corners of the screen. Ghosting is also a visible issue, and some edge enhancement might even be present. For a modern movie, not a very good transfer.
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is not without issues itself. Although it's hard to determine whether it's a problem with the source elements or the mixing of the disc, there's a tinny echo to the film's sound. Since it's consistent all the way through, I have to guess it's either an issue with the DVD or something baked into the video/audio files given to Entertainment One. Dialogue is still easy to understand, and what little surround activity there is comes through, but the echo is very distracting. English subtitles are also included.
Although the case suggests individual interviews with the cast and crew, the one extra on the disc is actually a featurette (:). This is pretty standard EPK nonsense: the actors describing their characters and describing the story, heavy on clips from the film itself. The most notable thing about it is that Michael Sheen appears to be putting himself to sleep trying to describe his own role in the movie.
A trailer for Virginia plays before the main menu. An original trailer for Jesus Henry Christ is also included.
Jesus Henry Christ is light entertainment, but it lacks the smugness that chokes so many films just like it. It's not essential viewing for anyone who isn't already interested, but worth a rental for those who are.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.