6/15/2017

Review: 'The Book Of Henry' Is Best Left On The Shelf


There are misguided movies, and then there are really misguided, "Oh my God what were they thinking?" efforts like The Book of Henry. Emotionally and tonally, it's hard to figure out what the heck Jurassic World and future Star Wars 9 director Colin Trevorrow is trying to pull off. What begins as an Amblin-style story about a brilliant, precocious kid who wants to help better the world, turns into a grim fairy tale that stretches plausibility until it snaps.


The bulk of the blame will fall upon the shoulders of screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz, a crime novelist and comic book writer of some renown. Initially, during the happy-go-lucky segment of the film, which follows boy genius Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, already a star at his young age), his younger brother Pete (Jacob Tremblay, of Room fame), and their less-than-responsible mother Susan (Noami Watts), I wondered when this was going to start feeling like a Hurwitz story. I kept waiting for the hard-boiled, shoe leather stuff I'm accustomed to from him. Be careful what you wish for.


The Book of Henry is a strange movie even at its best, but there is convention in its oddness. At 11 years old, Henry is essentially the man of the house. He runs the family finances, calling in stock trades from a pay phone at school, and doing it well enough they have over $600K in the bank. Not that Susan notices or cares. She's too busy playing video games, working at a crappy diner for no apparent reason, and driving a shabby car unnecessarily. It's Henry who looks after his little brother, who understandably idolizes him even if it gets him bullied at school. They can't pick on Henry, so they pick on Pete, instead. Henry could probably grow up to be a great supervillain if he wanted to, but he's a good kid who wants to help people. Most of all he wants to help his next door neighbor, and apparent future wife (according to Susan), Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who is being abused by her stepfather (Dean Norris), the town police commissioner.


Henry is the type of brainiac that exists only in movies like this and the recent drama, Gifted. He's unnaturally bright, showing a limitless range of knowledge from astronomy to neurology to math to invention. He can do literally anything he sets his mind to. And he has a mind to rescue Christina from her predicament. But before he can get to it, a tragedy strikes and Henry is left unable to complete his task, leaving it up to Susan to complete it, and finally learn how to be a mother.


So here's the problem: The Book of Henry was always ridiculous, but there was something mischievous and fun about it at first. A mom who plays violent shooter video games and gets admonished by her kids? What's not to love about that? But after the film takes a grim, dark turn, Trevorrow starts playing everything as straight as possible, even though the plot continues to be ludicrous. A book left behind by Henry guides Susan step-by-step into a complicated, intricate murder plot (!!!) that has her training with a rifle like she's Ben Affleck in The Accountant. Where the Hell did this movie come from? None of it gels, none of it makes a lick of sense, and the actors struggle to cope with it, too. Lieberher's a great young actor, best in last year's Midnight Special, but he can't make Henry feel like a real kid at all. Watts probably fares the best of them all but even she seems listless once Susan starts taking assassination tips from a cassette tape. She worked previously with Tremblay on the atrocious horror, Shut In, so it's no surprise she finds a few heartfelt moments with him, but overall this isn't a strong effort by anybody. They get little help from Trevorrow's direction, which lacks any of the quirky style he was able to give his debut, Safety Not  Guaranteed, or the cohesion he brought to Jurassic World. Honestly, this makes me fear for Star Wars 9, and I'm not kidding. That's how lackluster this effort from him is.


If there's an upside to The Book of Henry it's that you're so stunned by how badly it falls apart that you're left somewhat entertained. Just how far can it go? Pretty damn far. It ends on a change-of-heart spurred by a contrivance built on a mountain of false emotional notes. And y'know what? That's probably what this film deserves. This is one book that can remain on the shelf gathering dust.

2 out of 5