The psychologist Milton Rokeach is best-known for his 1964 book “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti,” a report on his own controversial and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to treat three delusional patients via a confrontational form of group therapy. Rokeach’s experiment inspired multiple theatrical productions and now a movie, primarily because of the nature of the subjects’ mental illness: Each believed he was Jesus Christ.
In director Jon Avnet’s “Three Christs” — co-written with Eric Nazarian — Richard Gere plays a lightly fictionalized version of Rokeach, Dr. Alan Stone, who takes a position at a Michigan hospital, nobly intending to heal paranoid schizophrenics without drugs, lobotomies or electroshock therapy. Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford play his patients, who become agitated when forced to spend time with other self-proclaimed messiahs.
Gere is quite good in “Three Christs,” playing a well-meaning but arrogant product of the 1950s American intelligentsia. Unfortunately, the trio of faux Jesuses don’t fare as well. Too often moviegoers equate good directing with a dynamic visual style, but it’s also about shaping performances; and here, Avnet proves too willing to let Dinklage, Goggins and Whitford overemote.
The biggest problem with “Three Christs” is an inconsistent tone. Though it often tries to come across as a kooky black comedy, the movie is better when it’s an earnest inquiry into what it means to be “godly.” Like the original experiment, this film fails when it tries to impose a conclusion, rather than letting its meaning reveal itself naturally.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Monica Film Center, Santa Monica