Movie Review: The Book of Henry

Naomi Watts heads up a good cast in a mess of a movie.


Naomi Watts
Focus Features

(This is a movie review, so there are spoilers.)

Cancer kids and schoolgirl sex abuse aren't usually thought to be the stuff of mirth, and yet some people sitting behind me at a screening of The Book of Henry, in which these things feature bigly, were barking like seals.

Which was only fitting, I guess. This is a movie so inane that full-throated mockery seems the only rational response to it. Well, either that or just getting up and walking out, which you could find mighty tempting, too.

I can't think of another movie in recent memory that features as many good performances as this one does while at the same time being otherwise mostly dreadful. And I was baffled to discover that the script, which is awful, was written by Gregg Hurwitz, who is a prolific novelist and film and TV writer, and also a university-level writing instructor. True, he wrote this script 18 years ago, and had been tinkering with it ever since. But if its merits are faithfully reflected in the movie that's been made from it, who on earth would want to make that movie?

Colin Trevorrow, that's who. The director. We'll come back to him.

The story is a lumpy stew of young-adult novelisms and old-time disease-of-the-week TV specials. Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 11-year-old brainiac who's devoted to his little brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay, of Room), and to his single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who works as a waitress in a diner and is heavily into mow-'em-down video games. (Henry is the real adult in the family, you see.)

Right away we have a problem. Early on, Henry tells his mom to remember she doesn't have to work anymore but could instead pursue her dream of writing children's books if she wanted to. Later we learn what Henry's financial backstop is; and since we know that Susan knows it, too, we have to wonder: why does she continue working in the diner? As with the many other questions raised by this movie, no answer is even attempted.

Susan has one friend, apparently: a fellow diner waitress named Sheila (Sarah Silverman), who drinks too much and—new problem—serves no purpose in the story at all. Nor does the complicated Rube Goldberg gadgetry Henry assembles in a deluxe treehouse in his family's back yard. Other improbabilities pile up rapidly.

Henry has a crush on a classmate named Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who lives next door with her stepfather, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), a hulking bruiser who is also the police commissioner. Staring out his bedroom window into Christina's room each night, Henry soon comes to realize that she is being sexually molested by Glenn. Henry decides that something should be done. He formulates a complex plan and lays it all out in a notebook. Unable to execute it himself, he conveys this plan to his mom along with an audio recording to walk her through the whole operation.

Just as we realize that we're expected to accept that Susan can execute this highly complex project on her own in a laughably brief amount of time, we further realize that we're also expected not to question the close coordination that develops between Susan and the vocal instructions that Henry has provided on the audio recording. The recorded Henry is amazingly full of observations and banter – Susan wonders about something, Henry weighs in with an answer. It would be like magic if it weren't such a shameless narrative cheat.

The movie is fortunate in its casting: Watts is never less than a treat to watch, and Lieberher, who surfaced in last year's Midnight Special, could break through in a bigger way if anybody goes to see this movie, which…well, you never know.

By the time the end comes stumbling into view, the main question some people might have about this film is what its reception will mean for Colin Trevorrow, the aforementioned director. Trevorrow has one likable indie on his resume (Safety Not Guaranteed) and one critic-proof box-office behemoth (the 2015 Jurassic World). As of now, he's also scheduled to direct the hyper-big-deal Star Wars: Episode IX, due for release in 2019. Should this movie tank entirely, how secure would that assignment be? Remember when the South African director Neill Blomkamp made a sci-fi splash with District 9, and was then tapped to direct a new Alien movie? Remember when Blomkamp followed up his hit with two underwhelmers—Elysium and Chappie—and suddenly there was no more Alien in his future? I wouldn't wish such a fate on Trevorrow, but then it's not what I wish that matters.

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