Home » Arthouse Report » The Book of Henry
         

The Book of Henry

At the time of this writing, The Book of Henry has already gained a reputation among the most awesomely bad, batshit crazy bombs of the year. A thousand thinkpieces have already been written about director Colin Trevorrow and how this could affect his performance at the helm of the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX.

Fuck ’em.

Everyone else may know Trevorrow as the guy who directed Jurassic World before getting his shot at debatably the most iconic franchise in cinema history. But I remember Trevorrow as the guy who made Safety Not Guaranteed, a beautiful bit of insanity that you should totally track down. No, really, go find that movie and watch it. It’s only 86 minutes long. I’ll wait.

So now Trevorrow is coming back on the arthouse scene with another low-budget indie oddity? And it stars Jacob Tremblay after his star-making turn in Room? Yeah, I was up for giving it a shot. The film sucked, but I gave it a shot.

The titular Henry is a precocious 11-year-old prodigy played by Jaeden Lieberher (formerly the wunderkind of Midnight Special and a lead in the upcoming It remake). Henry is so preternaturally smart and seemingly gifted at everything that everyone depends on him for everything. Seriously, his own mother (Susan, played by Naomi Watts) leaves Henry to pay the bills and manage the investments while she plays video games and gets drunk with her best friend (Sheila, played by Sarah Silverman).

Then the end of the first act comes and we learn that Henry has an untreatable brain tumor. He’s dead at the halfway point.

The good news is that Henry was very diligent about setting his affairs in order, such that his trainwreck of a mother would be able to look after herself and his brother (Peter, played by Jacob Tremblay). More importantly, there’s the matter of the cute girl next door.

Christina (played by Maddie Ziegler, formerly Sia’s surrogate in no less than five music videos) has been living alone with her stepfather since both of her parents passed away. Trouble is, her stepfather (Glenn, played by Dean Norris) is an abusive asshole. Even worse, he’s the police commissioner and all attempts at reporting the abuse have gone nowhere. Since Henry’s efforts failed when he was alive, he convinces his mother to follow an elaborate plan that he put together before he died.

A plan to kill Glenn. With a sniper rifle. Handled by a middle-aged mother of two with no training outside of an X-Box. Seriously.

First of all, it speaks volumes that I had to spoil so much about the movie just to dispense with the basic premise. That aside… well, let’s start with the positives.

I get the theme of comparing/contrasting kids and adults. Asking what the difference really is between them, whether it’s about age or maturity, dispelling the notion that adults always know more than kids… these are all ideas worthy of exploration. Especially given this role-reversal context in which it’s the adults who are all worthless and at a loss for what to do when they can’t take instructions from a preteen anymore.

But what really makes it work here is in Lieberher’s performance. It’s remarkable how he makes Henry’s intelligence look so effortless, treating his gifts like they’re no big deal. It reinforces the point that he’s not Superman, that he never even pretends to be capable of everything at once, and everyone else is all the dumber for acting like he is. It’s a compelling turn that illuminates a lot of the various themes at play.

By contrast, Jacob Tremblay is sadly underwhelming. Then again, it’s not like that’s necessarily his fault — Jack was such a unique once-in-a-lifetime role that anything immediately after Room would be a letdown. But it’s especially painful to see Tremblay stuck with the younger, perfectly average brother when we know for a fact that he’s capable of so much more, even at such a young age. It’s not that he does a bad job, he’s just wasted. Though he does get the one legitimate laugh-out-loud moment in the whole running time (“Anyone want to trade for a piece of fruit?”), so there’s that.

I want to stress that Trevorrow knows how to cast his child actors and get solid performances out of them (see also: Jurassic World). Even in the case of Christina — an utterly thankless role that’s really more of a plot device in the big scheme of things — Maddie Ziegler brings a performance that’s utterly heartbreaking with barely a word spoken. So now let’s look at the adults in the cast.

Dean Norris totally nails his role by… well, just by being Dean Norris, really. We’ve also got Sarah Silverman bringing some effective comic relief, nicely delivering a character who’s a lush and a bitch but is nonetheless sympathetic because she’s such a devoted friend. Elsewhere, Lee Pace puts in a brief appearance as a neurologist who might be a possible love interest for Watts’ character. It’s a useless role, but after all the villainous roles Pace has taken lately, it was very refreshing to see him play a guy who’s genuinely sweet and charming. (RIP “Pushing Daisies”.)

Still, the undisputed MVP of the adult cast is Naomi Watts, as Susan goes through a wide gauntlet of emotions throughout the running time. It’s a true tour-de-force, so good that she almost — ALMOST — salvages some of the cornier lines and more contrived moments.

See, here’s the thing: This movie deals heavily with child abuse, family deaths, corruption of power, our need for compassion in an increasingly apathetic world, and other such themes that demand to be taken seriously. Yet it’s also a movie about a competent young boy surrounded by idiotic adults, a premise that is exceedingly hard to take seriously. Moreover, this is a film in which said young genius somehow makes a plan so insanely detailed that his notes and recordings answer every query and problem in real time like he really is talking from beyond the fucking grave. There’s simply no way to take that seriously, at least not to the extent that the film wants us to.

The perfect example comes at the climax, in which we see a grade-school talent show intercut (and undercut) with a goddamn assassination scheme. Seriously. When people talk about this film being laughably and painfully bad, this is the sequence they’re talking about. That said, there’s really nothing wrong with the climax that wasn’t wrong with the rest of the movie — it just took 70 minutes for those faults to reach critical mass and cross the threshold into something outrageously bad instead of merely being broken.

My other favorite example comes when the doctors need parental consent for the surgery to treat Henry’s tumor. And she can’t sign the paper because she’s always needed Henry’s permission to sign anything. To repeat: Her signature could be the only difference between life and death for her son, and she hesitates to wait for permission from the same barely-conscious preteen on the operating table. It’s such a laughable predicament in such a grave situation that I have no idea what the fuck I’m supposed to be feeling. Except, y’know, for confusion.

All throughout the movie, there are serious moments undercut by the lighthearted premise and the ludicrous plot contrivances; and silly moments undercut by the suffering and death at play, not to mention the deeply emotional themes. While I still believe that Trevorrow is a legitimately talented filmmaker, he was not equal to the task of bringing all of these pieces together into a cohesive whole. But then, I’m not sure if there’s a filmmaker out there who could’ve done more with a story so fundamentally flawed.

The Book of Henry is a clusterfuck. It’s a film that tries to be everything at once and ends up being nothing. Except a headache. That said, while that descriptor is typically applied to uninspired four-quadrant empty spectacles, this one actually tries to make a lot of deeply heartfelt statements about the human condition by way of a plot we haven’t really seen before. The filmmakers — most especially the actors — put a ton of effort and creativity into making this something special, and I can respect that.

Alas, that doesn’t stop the movie from being an incoherent self-defeating mess. It’s at least a thoroughly unique failure, which may be worth a home video rental for anyone curious and brave enough. Otherwise, this is absolutely not recommended.

Leave a Reply