Mark Reviews Movies

The Book of Henry


1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Tonya Pinkins, Bobby Moynihan, Geraldine Hughes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 6/16/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 20, 2017

It's difficult to believe that the actors read their lines for The Book of Henry and thought they'd want to perform them. It's harder to believe that director Colin Trevorrow read the entirety of the screenplay for the movie and thought he'd try to make it. It's almost impossible to believe that screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz came up with the idea for this thing and thought that, yes, this is a story that needs to be told.

It's a terrible idea, with tonal shifts that happen on a dime, without any thought about what has come immediately before them. The story goes from quirky to troubling to sad to devastated to angry to cold to hopeful, and it does so without giving us time to catch our breath, let alone try to process any of the goings-on and potential emotional impact of what has happened. Hurwitz probably had the idea of an "emotional roller coaster" in his head as he wrote this. He didn't take into account that, as the story is structured, the roller coaster somehow gives us whiplash on the first hill.

One cannot explain how ill-conceived and poorly executed this story is without mentioning significant, key details of the plot. That's as close as a "spoiler warning" as you're going to get. To sum up for the impatient folks, this is a movie about a dead kid's attempt, from beyond the grave, to exact revenge on the abusive stepfather of the girl on whom he has a crush, using his grieving mother as the tool of vigilante justice.

Now that it's out in the open, how in the hell did this movie get there? It begins with the soon-to-be-dead kid. His name is Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), of course, and the extent of his intelligence is introduced by way of a school essay. The subject is aspirations for life, and on the fly, the 11-year-old goes on about the existential crisis of life and how the thing that really matters is what a person does in the present, as well as what a person leaves behind for the people who love him. We could see it as foreshadowing for his imminent demise, if not for the fact that, in the moment, it's an insufferable sermon presented as our sympathetic entryway for the character. Respecting Henry's philosophy, we'll put more weight on what happens in the moment.

His mother is Susan (Naomi Watts, far too good here as a character who's little more than a pawn in the plot), who's single and raising Henry and a younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) on her own. Henry does some stock trading in his downtime, so Susan is wealthy beyond her understanding. She still works as a waitress as a diner, where her best friend Shelia (Sarah Silverman), an alcoholic whose problems are raised and dismissed like the hanging subplot of a first draft, dream of what it would be like to have money. This seems cruel in retrospect, but it's not as if Hurwitz shows any hindsight in the more significant matters of the script.

All of this is relatively fine, if a bit too precious in how the kids are more grown-up than their mother, who spends her after-work hours playing video games. It quickly becomes dark when Henry witnesses Christina (Maddie Ziegler), his next-door neighbor, being abused by her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris). He tries to involve the authorities, but Glenn, the town's police commissioner, is untouchable. He starts plotting the perfect murder to get rid of the problem.

Then Henry dies in a weepy sequence that still wants to introduce a hunky doctor (played by Lee Pace) who can come into Susan's life later. Henry's dying wish is for Peter to show their mother his secret notebook with the plans to murder Glenn. Realizing that she needs to do something to take her mind off her son's untimely death, Susan takes to the scheme with uncommon enthusiasm, especially since Henry left a cassette tape of him giving her to-the-second instructions.

At this point, the movie essentially becomes a thriller, and it might have worked as a fairly twisted one (Trevorrow's staging of the climax certainly suggests that). It might have, if not for the baggage of everything that has come before it (Is it even necessary to bring up how discomforting it is that the movie uses child abuse in such an exploitative way?). The Book of Henry is a tonal and moral mess.

Copyright 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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