Between bruising the Jurassic Park and Star Wars franchises, Colin Trevorrow is now inflicting The Book of Henry upon us, one of the most tonally lost films I’ve seen in the last twelve months, a span of time that includes Collateral Beauty. I would rather watch Collateral Beauty again.
Like Collateral Beauty, I will never understand how someone looked at The Book of Henry’s story and decided this was a good idea. There is a minor extent to which it resembles a more typical hack Hollywood movie, but it doesn’t take long for that to go out the window in spectacular fashion, leaving us with a disaster that should have been obvious long before a frame was shot.
The story revolves around a genius boy, his man-child mother (Naomi Watts), his adorable little brother (Jacob Tremblay), and the girl next door (Maddie Ziegler). It’s cute. By the time it’s over, we’ve dealt with child abuse, illness, suicide and an extended murder plot. Again, it’s cute.
Paramount among The Book of Henry’s issues is Henry himself. Played by Jaeden Lieberher, I do not recall the last time cinema gave us such a smugly dislikable hero (Jack Reacher doesn’t even come close). Henry is “movie genius”, not just extra smart but full-on omniscient, with no pushback given from those around him, which means we have to watch this eleven-year-old brat talk down to everyone with the film’s full support behind him. By the time the kid successfully condescends to a neurological surgeon, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of himself Golden Ticket filmmaker Colin Trevorrow saw in the boy.
Henry carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, taking emotional care of his little brother and financial care of his negligent but well-meaning mother. He also wants to take care of his crush next door, whose stepfather (Dean Norris) is abusing her. On that last score, Henry realizes no adults will help, so he devises an ultra-complicated, but surely foolproof murder plan.
But God has a foolproof murder plan of his own. (He can’t just have a super genius running around already willing to kill before even getting pubes, after all.) And before you know it, the film shifts to Naomi Watts trying to pull off this murder in her son’s stead with the help of what appear to be real-time but also prerecorded audio instructions. So, you know, iPod Henry will tell her to walk to her left, and when she walks to her right instead the recording will say “your other left, mom”. Boy, it’s hilarious.
Poor Naomi Watts. It’s not easy watching the great actress brought so low here, playing a childish idiot constantly schooled by an eleven-year-old. The film tasks her with playing video games, and it’s like watching a kid (not Henry, of course) pretend to drive. The script doesn’t help either, with legit video game lingo like “let me level-up on these guys”. I’m surprised she doesn’t call her XBox a Nintendo.
Colin Trevorrow attempts to apply Amblin charm to a dark and ludicrous story, a mixture that might work in the hands of someone like Frank Darabont, but even that’s a stretch and would require a ton of fundamentals script changes. What we have here is a totally misguided disaster. It would be fun if only Henry weren’t so enraging.
The idea that Trevorrow will direct Episode IX was never encouraging, but after this I have real dread for the film. Just thinking Book of Henry was a good idea at all should kill a career, but Trevorrow fails all over the place. He can’t even get things like spacial relations right. The film’s family lives on a residential street that is mere steps from a massive wooded area that is itself mere steps from a giant, fancy bridge. There are great opportunities for Rear Window-like suspense that he whiffs completely. Actors are left high and dry. Amazingly, I’ve seen critics on Twitter praise this film, and it gives me comfort because it means anything is possible. It means you, guy who blew off his fingers trying to squeeze a lit M-80 into a fish’s ass, you could be an astronaut.
This is a special bad film, but not one you should waste any time or money seeing in the theater. It’s not The Happening, where ineptitude produces something accidentally entertaining. It’s an infuriating mess that deserves to be ignored.