Sixty years ago, a psychologist named Milton Rokeach hatched an unconventional experiment, in which he gathered together at Ypsilanti State Hospital three mental patients who’d been diagnosed with grandiose delusions — each was thoroughly convinced that he and only he was Jesus Christ — to test whether confronting them with “the ultimate contradiction” of their claims might impact their beliefs. “While I had failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine — of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives,” Rokeach wrote decades later in the 1981 reprint of his book, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.”
There’s a wonderful irony to that line upon which a fascinating film might be based, perhaps even a rowdy weekly sitcom. Instead, director Jon Avnet (whose terrific adaptation of “Fried Green Tomatoes” gives hope that perhaps he has another great film in him) and co-writer Eric Nazarian (whose credits do not inspire great optimism) have served up a stiff, unconvincing and recklessly wrong-headed reinterpretation of events. Operating in the vein of movies like “Awakenings,” the pair have gone back to Rokeach’s book-length report, mining it for colorful details, while positioning the controversial experiment as some kind of noble breakthrough for talk-based treatment over more barbaric methods, such as electroshock therapy.
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Mind you, to the layperson, anything is better than clamping paddles to someone’s forehead and cranking up the voltage. What “Three Christs” ignores are not only the plentiful ethical criticisms of Rokeach’s work (as one of the patients put it in the book, “When psychology is used to agitate, it’s not sound psychology any more. You’re not helping the person. You’re agitating.”) but also its author’s own admission that his study was a failure. Going in, Rokeach had assumed that he might be able to fix these patients, whereas in retrospect, he realized that he had been attempting to play God. Turns out there weren’t only three Christs in Ypsilanti but four, Rokeach concluded with a certain rhetorical flair.
In any case, Richard Gere would not be my first choice to play Rokeach. Don’t get me wrong: Gere’s a fine actor, although he’s far better at projecting cow-eyed sympathy — his version of the saintly, all-patient therapist that earned Robin Williams an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” — than a doctor wrestling with his own delusions of grandeur. Gere’s simply too nice, and as an audience, we instantly forgive the character his foibles, while Avnet redirects his criticism at the hospital director, shock-happy Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak).
Obviously, the real acting opportunity here falls to the three patients, as Avnet allows Bradley Whitford, Peter Dinklage and Walton Goggins to parade about in varying shades of paranoid schizophrenia. Whitford is a twitchy motormouth, taker of long showers, and chronic masturbator, whereas Dinklage (with whom he frequently scuffles) projects a more urbane personality, with his taste for opera records and references to his native England.
Rokeach, who has been renamed “Dr. Stone” in the film, finds a third Christ — “but not from Nazareth,” this one insists — at another hospital. This last patient looks like Jack Nicholson, not so much the spastic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” version as the wild-eyed, greasy-haired lunatic who runs around swinging an ax at the end of “The Shining.” A good fit for Goggins, who offers up one of the more restrained performances of his career. Frankly, all three are quite good, if very much on different pages.
Rokeach’s idea was to force these three false prophets to cohabitate for two years and see what happened. Avnet’s idea is to create a tug-of-war between Stone and the hospital staff, who disapprove of his methods at first, but later want to take credit for the attention after he publishes his first article. Stone convinces them to stop shocking his patients (for a time), but rest assured, there will come a scene in which your favorite Christ becomes agitated, and the orderlies seize the opportunity to strap him down and plug him into the electroshock machine. Cut to a distressing close-up as something that looks like ectoplasm burbles forth from his mouth.
It will not surprise you — read: spoiler alert — that one of the three Christs commits suicide. None of Rokeach’s patients did so in real life, but in the lazy dramatists handbook, that trope is by far the most efficient way for movies about prisons, psychiatric hospitals and uptight boarding schools to announce that the administrators of such institutions are in the wrong (see yet another self-righteous Robin Williams movie Avnet no doubt had in mind, “Dead Poets Society”). It also serves to explain why Stone, in the opening scene, addresses a disciplinary committee with the words “I am guilty of underestimating the enigma that is the mind.”
By now it is probably amply clear that “Three Christs” is not a faith-based movie — at least, not in the conventional sense. The movie has almost nothing to do with religious belief, beyond that its titular trio all believe themselves to be the Messiah (eventually, one does waver slightly in his identity, requesting to be called “Dr. Righteous Idealed Dung”). To an extent, faith still factors into the experience: As audiences, we trust filmmakers to do a reasonably accurate job of representing stories based in truth, and we get angry when they take the kind of liberties Avnet and company allow themselves here. As if it weren’t bad enough that “Three Christs” were boring, it’s impossible to believe, and for that, there is no cure.