A film review by Craig J. Koban October 24, 2017

THE BOOK OF HENRY  zero stars  

2017, R, 113 mins.

 

Naomi Watts as Susan Carpenter  /  Jaeden Lieberher as Henry Carpenter  /  Jacob Tremblay as Peter Carpenter  /  Sarah Silverman as Sheila  /  Lee Pace as David  /  Maddie Ziegler as Christina Sickleman  /  Tonya Pinkins as Principal Wilder  /  Dean Norris as Glenn Sickleman  /  Bobby Moynihan as John

Directed by Colin Trevorrow  /  Written by Gregg Hurwitz

 

 

 

REVIEW SPOILER WARNING

This review consists of a thorough and detailed discussion of key story particulars from THE BOOK OF HENRY.

I've read that THE BOOK OF HENRY was made from on a near 20-year-old script from Greg Hurwitz, which is ultimately telling, seeing as the resulting film feels like it's about 20 years worth of re-writes away from becoming an admirable final product deserving of our consumption.  

This is an indefensibly awful movie that also happens to be unsavory and off-putting, especially for the manner that it milks child abuse and terminal cancer as cheap and manipulative plot devices to propel its illogically scripted story from one nonsensical act to the next.  Even worse is that the film features people in front of and behind the camera that are talented and have all collectively done good work before.  None of them, though, have participated in something so dramatically phony, poorly conceived, and bafflingly scripted as this, a movie that I'm reasonably sure that I thoroughly hated. 

Discussing this coming of age drama (if I could even call it that) will be next to impossible without engaging in ample spoilers, but THE BOOK OF HENRY definitely deserves to be seen in all future screenwriting classes to bare witness as to how not to pen scripts.  This is a movie that literally needs to be seen to be believed, mostly because it begins with modest promise and then devolves into plot developments that never feel like they logically occupy a normal and familiar plane of reality.  There's nothing inherently wrong with a drama that's daring to be different and tries to cut itself from a very different creative cloth, but THE BOOK OF HENRY is so illogically and hopelessly muddled in terms of its themes and wholeheartedly is lacking in authentic emotional payoffs that you're left wondering just what in the hell the intentions of the filmmakers were.  And I frankly have no idea whatsoever what kind of film this was trying to be; it flirts with absurdity and laughably seesaws back and forth from one inconsistent tone to the next. 

 

 

As for its overall story, THE BOOK OF HENRY begins as a pretty light and carefree dramedy about a child prodigy that seems impossibly intelligent in all facets of life.  The 11-year-old boy genius in question is the titular Henry (played well by Jaeden Lieberher, so resoundingly good in past films like MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and this fall's IT), who lives a fairly quiet and unassuming life with his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and his kid brother Peter (ROOM's sensational Jacob Termblay).  Henry seems like the most responsible and mature member of his tight family unit, seeing as Susan spends most of her days playing violent video games when she's not boozing away her evenings with her BFF (Sarah Silverman).  Susan has aspirations to be a storybook writer and illustrator, but instead works a lowly job as a waitress and frankly seems ill equipped at handling even basic parenting. 

Nevertheless, Henry bares most of the responsibilities of not only looking after his younger sibling, but also the emotional and financial needs of his mother (he even dabbles in the stock market for her, with stupendous levels of success).  Henry's focus on his family takes a bit of a back seat when he becomes more acquainted with a cute girl from next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her police commissioner stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris).  The more Henry observes his neighbors through open windows the more abundantly clear it becomes that Christina is being habitually abused by her vile father, which prompts Henry into action.  Even after Henry pleads with school officials to intervene when physical signs of abuse appear on Christina's body, they're dealt with incredulity, leaving the grimly determined Henry feeling like he alone must stop Glenn. 

It's at this point in the film when Henry starts developing headaches...then he's diagnosed with brain cancer...and then he dies. 

Wait...what?! 

From this point forward THE BOOK OF HENRY really, really starts to spiral into a preposterously macabre black comedy/revenge thriller (I kid you not).  It appears that Henry - before he died - wrote an eerily detailed journal about how to launch a meticulously well planned mission to...assassinate Glenn...and get away with it...and he left this "Book of Henry" with his mom in hopes that she'll follow his dying wishes to seek bloody vigilante fuelled justice on her evil neighbor.  I mean, this Henry has thought of everything for Susan, right down to weapon and bullet choices, where to purchase them, how to take money out of multiple bank machines as to not look suspicious to make said purchases, and even to when precisely to shoot Glenn down in a cold pool of blood.  All of these instructions are relayed to her in a series of head shakingly implausible audio cassette recorded instructions that only can exist in a movie, replete with Henry not only giving his mommy advice from the grave, but he also has a proper reply for every predicted question she has about his disturbing plan, making it appear like their having a conversation that would be, well, impossible otherwise.   

Oh...and THE BOOK OF HENRY commences at a school talent show. 

Wait...what?! 

I've rarely shaken my head with such startling disbelief while watching a movie as I did with THE BOOK OF HENRY.  There are three to four genres all vying for attention here, none of which coalesce together with any reasonable fluidity.  At first, the movie is a bright, cheery, and slice of life comedy about kids growing up...then it becomes a three-hanky downer about a child dying from an incurable disease...then a deplorable expose on child sexual predators...and then finally a DEATH WISH inspired thriller about seeking vengeance.  The only thing that the movie's script didn't do was to hurtle its characters into outer space and on to alien worlds, and there reached a certain point in the narrative where it felt like it could have happened.  The bewildering manner that this film tries to segue between all of its wildly discordant tones creates an obtrusive whiplash effect in viewers, which is awfully hard to recover from. 

There's also a nauseating creative arrogance that permeates THE BOOK OF HENRY; it thinks it's cutting edge and devilishly clever, but it confuses cheap scripting pallor tricks with intelligent plot reveals.  That, and nothing ever feels remotely plausible in the film.  It's never once plausible that Susan would ever take it upon herself to honor her dead son's wishes to assassinate their neighbor.  It's never once plausible that the precocious little Henry would be able to predict every query his mother would have about said assassination mission with a quirky quip via an audio recording he made months earlier before he died.  It's never plausible how Susan's suspicious activity would not draw the attention of the authorities.  It's also not plausible that anyone that read this script well before the shooting phase would have deemed it an acceptable final draft.  Lastly, it's never plausible how THE BOOK OF HENRY tries to be a joyous celebration of life while also trying to be a movie about a mourning mother and her dead son plotting to murder another human being. 

This movie...made...my...skin...crawl.  

For any movie to receive a dreaded zero star rating from me it has to be either (a) artistically bankrupted and/or (b) morally repugnant to its core.  I don't think that THE BOOK OF HENRY is artistically bankrupt, mostly because the performances by Watts, Lieberher, and Tremblay are thanklessly effective (the two young actors alone foster a level of authenticity as on screen brothers that the film they occupy never once attains).  The problem here is that no amount of confident and headstrong performances could have saved THE BOOK OF HENRY from being disbelievingly artificial and in poor taste all at the same time.  But the makers sure think that this film is more moving, uplifting, and amusing than it actually is, and chief blame should go to director Colin Trevorrow, whom previously made JURASSIC WORLD (disliked by me) and SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (greatly admired by me).  Trevorrow has talent, no question, but he shows a schizophrenic artistic disconnect in THE BOOK OF HENRY from dramatic reality that's astonishing.   

He was also recently and very publicly fired from directing STAR WARS: EPISODE IX.  After watching this film...I now know why:  Movies as inexcusably wrongheaded as THE BOOK OF HENRY would get any director shit canned from his next gig.

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