There’s a moment in Jon Avnet’s “Three Christs” when the movie’s central psychiatrist Dr. Stone (Richard Gere) suffers a Freudian slip so on-the-nose, you could tell it would happen before he says it: In defending his unorthodox treatment of three men who referred to themselves as Jesus Christ, Dr. Stone accidentally refers to four men, not three, to his supervisors.
This prompts some awkward discussion, but the purpose of the scene is clear: The good doctor also suffers from some godlike illusions of grandeur himself.
However great Gere or his co-stars are, none of them can soothe all that ails “Three Christs,” a milquetoast January release. The movie has that one terribly obvious moment of clarity, but the rest of it seems to stand by Dr. Stone’s crusade unquestionably. Only he recognizes the cruelty of mental institutions in 1959. Only he knows what he’s doing, and everyone else is just in his way. He’s in tune to a future where his favorite comic Lenny Bruce will be more revered and where electroshock therapy will be a thing of the past. It’s a simplified, reductive portrait of a complex story, and it feels as if there’s more to it that hasn’t made it to the screen.
Adapted by Avnet and Eric Nazarian from Dr. Milton Rokeach’s book “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti,” the film skims what the doctor learned in the course of his two-year study of three paranoid schizophrenics who claim to be Jesus Christ. “Three Christs” looks back at the events in flashbacks with voiceover; it’s a clunky way into what’s happened, but eventually this device falls away to let the story unfurl on its own. Dr. Stone is convinced he can cure and rehabilitate his patients to lead normal social lives again if only protocol and bureaucracy were not in his way.
To his credit, Gere does an amicable job of balancing the calming presence of a psychiatrist who truly wants to reach his patients and the drive of a researcher hellbent on finding the right answer. With his patients, he’s comforting, tough but firm when need be, but when Dr. Stone is off to see his bosses, Gere plays it almost childishly petulant and pushy. It’s in these scenes when his savior complex is most insufferable although, for the most part, Gere’s performance is relatively dependable, at least until he tries to employ a warbling Brooklyn accent that none of the five boroughs would claim.
As for Dr. Stone’s patients — Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) — they’re the stars of the story, although also with mixed results. The story attempts to empathize with their tortured backgrounds, stories of severe loss and rejection that possibly triggered their holy delusions. They are at their most interesting when exploring the awkward push-and-pull rapport between three men that claim to be the Son of God.
At first, they sit far apart and snipe at each other, but over time, those boundaries soften and they begin to bond in ways their former doctors never expected. However, there are moments, when the actors subtly give way to moments of full-out overacting, that it almost feels as if the movie is voyeuristically enjoying its characters’ pain.
“Three Christs” also falls short of doing justice to the two women in the film, Becky (Charlotte Hope) and Ruth (Julianna Margulies). Becky is Dr. Stone’s assistant, and aside from a potentially interesting backstory that’s referred to only once, she is there for one of the patients to leer at and make uncomfortable. The movie even seems to suggest she’s almost charmed by his unfiltered platitudes. But aside from enduring sexual remarks and marveling at the genius of Dr. Stone, there’s not much of a reason for her character.
Ruth, Dr. Stone’s wife, is similarly limited in that she fulfills only the part of a sexually-satisfied partner who loves her husband and senses there might be some competition in his fondness for Becky, especially since Ruth was his previous research assistant before they were married.
“Three Christs” follows a relatively well-tread formula, which is perhaps why it feels so inert. It’s a good, relative surface-level reading of events, but the man-on-a-crusade approach feels so much more dramatic than it needs to be. The cast can’t cure all the movie’s problems, from its abrupt ending to a random acid-test scene, but it’s not without its curious appeal as a star-studded failed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” experiment.