Return with us now to those chilling days of yesteryear, when mental patients were lobotomized, and jolted with electricity to the brain until they frothed at the mouth.
Specifically, we’re at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan. The year is 1959, and Dr. Alan Stone (Richard Gere) is bringing his forward-looking, humane approach to an institution still mired, under the direction of smug administrator Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak), in the Dark Ages of psychiatric treatment. The story you are about to hear is true, or adapted at least from an actual clinical study as recorded in The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Dr. Milton Rokeach, on whom Gere’s character is based.
The hospital claims among its inmates a holy trinity of paranoid schizophrenics, each of whom identifies as the Son of God. They are Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage), whose Christ persona comes with an ersatz British accent and a querulous demand to be repatriated to his fantasized Holy Land of England; Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins), whose divinity takes a sexual bent directed at Dr. Stone’s comely research assistant (Charlotte Hope); and Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford), a widower who suffers agonies of guilt over his wife’s death. Each claims to be Christ, and of course, each thinks the others are crazy. It is Dr. Stone’s heretical thesis that he may be able to cure them by bringing them face to face in group therapy to confront each other, and may the best Christ win.
Three Jesuses and a shrink with a God complex. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the script, for one thing. Co-written by director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Eric Nazarian, it provides little beyond surface character tics for the fine actors playing the patients to express. Pollack, as the hospital chief, is your standard-issue bureaucratic meanie, and Gere brings little to back up a squinty-eyed look of compassion and anguish in the lead role. As his long-suffering and mildly alcoholic (and smarter) wife, Julianna Margulies offers the most depth in the scant opportunities provided her.
Gere’s Stone is an earnest but flawed character, much, apparently, like his model Rokeach, who employed questionable ethics in his handling of these patients. He ultimately added a mea culpa to a later edition of his book, admitting his approach had not made much progress in curing the patients. He acknowledged, however, that “it did cure me of my godlike delusion that I could manipulate them out of their beliefs.”
As a dramatic evocation of mid-20th century psychiatric treatment, this One Flew Over the Savior’s Nest takes up an interesting premise, but never gets under the skin or into the heads of either its subjects or its audience.