* out of ****
(for thematic elements and brief strong language)
Released: June 16, 2017
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Dean Norris, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Bobby Moynihan
Colin Trevorrow’s powers of persuasion are infinitely greater than his powers of storytelling, because it absolutely boggles the mind how he was able to convince any adult human person to help him make The Book of Henry.
From broad concept to actual specifics, The Book of Henry is such an affront to common sense and the basic functions of how day-to-day reality works that the only conceivable reaction to reading this script would be, one would think, “You can’t be serious.”
The fact that this film exists – with legitimate theatrical distribution, no less, complete with actual marketing – is a testament to how much leeway industry professionals will grant a person who has successfully managed a blockbuster franchise (Jurassic World, in the case of Trevorrow).
Mishmashing a grabbag of ideas into the clunkiest of narratives, The Book of Henry goes from precious to perverse to preposterous in a series of whiplash inducing swings. How else can one describe a film that throws pedophilia into the crosshairs of a child prodigy’s coming of age story, granting his intellectual genius the moral authority to validate a vigilante license to kill, then drops in a terminal illness for good measure, and expects you to embrace it all with the warm nostalgia of a suburbia-set Spielberg classic?
It’s all so utterly absurd that even a Lifetime network exec would scoff at the notion of greenlighting this mess.
Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special) is the tween-age genius Henry who lives with his diner-waitress single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) and younger brother Peter (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) in the impossibly twee-decorated home of a working mother so tight with her budget that she nags her boys to not waste syrup at breakfast because “that stuff’s expensive”.
That tiny anecdotal nitpick is actually a good example of the logical inconsistencies that are writ large across the entire landscape of this movie, one that manufactures the facsimile of human behavior from a Hollywood contrivance machine.
It’s hard not to spiral down into a long list of implausibilities that this movie expects you to buy at face value so, short of doing that, it’s fair to say that the fundamental problems here are a writer (author Gregg Hurwitz, in his screenplay debut) so in love with his ideas that he’s blind to their incredulity, and a director so equally fascinated by them that his hubris thinks he can sell them.
Of the two, Trevorrow’s is probably the more delusional because he thinks a cheesy, schmaltzy tone will win our hearts over (just the opposite occurs) before he grabs us with the suspense of a “How To Get Away With Justifiable Homicide” thriller, all told with too-cute self-conscious dialogue that thinks its cleverness will mask its expository laziness (it doesn’t).
How it tries to set aside our most obvious question of “Well, isn’t there another option than, oh, I dunno, murder?” and the credible alternatives any sane person would jump to is the epitome of this movie’s insults.
In Henry’s book, there are topic headers that reflect, verbatim, all of our questions. These headers are followed by Henry’s detailed reasoning, at full thesis level one would assume, as to why murder is the only option…yet the movie never has any character actually read or reveal the reasoning laid out in Henry’s book. It just zips by the topic headers and expects us, the audience, to assume that the kid’s reasoning (whatever it may be) is valid because, well, he’s a precocious genius, so just go with it.
To dig further into this disaster would be to pick apart a litany of spoilers, ones I won’t detail so as not to undercut the pure experience of being gobsmacked by this train wreck. It is the most bizarre must-see movie for all the wrong reasons. But for a taste of its WTF audacity, I’ll add that it chooses to complicate its climactic hit job assassination with a Rube Goldberg machine.
Simply put, The Book of Henry is one of the most egregious miscalculations by a filmmaker that I have ever seen.