By: Hawk Ripjaw (Six Pack) –
Before we get started, you should really watch the trailer for The Book of Henry.
Still with me?
Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is an absurdly smart 11-year old. He’s so smart, he creates Rube Goldberg machines in his science workshop (and not the cool ones, those stupid ones that do something basic like put whipped cream on a cookie), already knows what an adult is trying to describe before they can put it into words, and balances the family’s bank account while his mom Susan (Naomi Watts) plays video games on the couch.
Wait, what the fuck?
Yes–possibly surpassing Eva Khatchadourian for Worst Mom Award, Susan plays video games all night, is consistently late to pick up her children, and likes to get drunk with her coworker Sheila (Sarah Silverman), taking advantage of Henry’s weird role as the proto-father figure of the unit. Next door lives Christina (Maddie Ziegler), a withdrawn, talented dancer for whom Henry has feelings. Henry soon learns that Christina is being abused nightly by her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris). Calls to child protective services are useless, as Glenn is the police commissioner and the head of CPS is Glenn’s brother.
Then Henry gets a brain tumor and dies. An impossibly handsome and very tall neurosurgeon named Dr. Daniels (Lee Pace), who oversaw Henry’s brief stay in the hospital, starts to sort of be a love interest for Susan. Susan is more interested in a diary Henry left behind, which, along with some audio cassettes, will train Susan to become a sniper and kill Glenn.
Wait…what the fuck??
Given the critical lambasting The Book is Henry is receiving, there is already heavy (and probably unsubstantiated) buzz that Colin Trevorrow will be terminated from Star Wars Episode IX in what is already referred to as “Tranking yourself”–a reference to Josh Trank’s transcendentally horrible Fantastic 4 reboot allegedly leading to his own removal from the Star Wars franchise. Ultimately, that’s not entirely fair to Trevorrow, who does well enough attempting to handle the script that’s been put in front of him.
Trevorrow pulls strong performances out of each of his actors, particularly Jacob Tremblay in a genuinely heart-breaking turn as surviving brother Peter. Unlikeable as she is as a character, Naomi Watts effectively conveys a grieving mother not just in elongated sequences of moping but in her brief, fruitless attempts to inject happiness into a day. Grief is painful, and The Book of Henry mostly handles it well–even when in the context of everything else it feels melodramatic.
Quirky “smart kid outsmarts the adults” humor, cavity-inducing sweetness, and ridiculously overblown tragedy collide in a very ugly way multiple times in the movie, to the point where a scene that should be genuinely emotional is completely ruined moments later by a joke, or something comedic feels like it shouldn’t be funny. Everything is startlingly out of place, and none of the tones ever feel genuine. Then there are the moments that don’t even really know what they want to be. In the recordings Henry left behind, he injected pauses into his conversation, so that Susan could “talk back” to the recording. Is it supposed to be comedic or is it supposed to somber? If the movie knows, it’s not willing to say anything.
If you watched the trailer above, you probably hit a point where you started wondering what the hell was going on. The movie isn’t dissimilar, with its insane sprint through the genres of quirky family comedy, misery porn, and revenge thriller, often in a matter of minutes. This is quite literally three different movies coexisting in the same space, and every time the movie feels like it’s going to go the sensible route for the plot, it goes for something completely else entirely. It almost feels like the result of three different focus groups getting their notes mixed up when their three different couriers collided in the hall and dropped everything, and instead of trying to organize everything, they just shuffled it altogether into one structurally incoherent behemoth.
Henry is the “young savant” archetype cranked up until the knob breaks off. He’s the little asshole that when he’s not five steps ahead of the adults in the conversation, he’s correcting them and showing them how their pitiful adult mind is no match for him. He refers to his school principal by her first name and talks to her like he’s her police captain. He totally schools Dr. Daniels on the intricacies of his condition. There’s an irritating smugness to Henry that completely crosses the line of quirkiness into that distinct feeling of a young character being written by someone much older, completely detaching him from any reason to care about him and turning the tragedy of his death scene into soap opera fodder.
Henry’s mother doesn’t fare better: Susan is a comically terrible parent, with a distinct lack of usefulness to a degree usually reserved for a sitcom, while Silverman’s Sheila consistently convinces Susan to binge drink with her, even on a post-bender afternoon. Susan literally drags her kids to Sheila’s house to see why Sheila didn’t show up for work. Upon finding Sheila passed out in her backyard, Susan wakes her and takes roughly ten seconds to succumb to Sheila’s invitation to yet another drink. While Peter has some of the best moments of the movie in how he deals with the devastation of losing his role model, he finds other ways to be irritating, such as his genuine fear of sharks in the bathtub and a baffling third-act talent show performance that was probably meant to come across as charming, but really just indirectly suggests that Peter got the short end of the stick in the finite pool of Carpenter family intelligence.
A very special final beer goes to the ending of the movie, which is so shockingly wrong-headed it’s actually kind of offensive. It ends with Susan adopting Christina, and suddenly all is well. While Henry didn’t care for a story Susan loved to read to her children, Christina loves it. Previously, it was established that Susan ends every night by asking her sons whether the door should be closed, and whether the nightlight should be on. They always give differing answers. The same question is asked once more at the end, but Christina and Peter both have the same response, which makes Susan happy and bizarrely suggests that Christina, finally at peace, has effectively replaced the tightly-wound Henry and created an equilibrium in the family that wasn’t there before. It conveniently, and insultingly, diminishes the dramatic heft of mourning for Henry.
The Book of Henry is an amazingly misguided and tonally chaotic disaster, and easily one of the worst movies of the year. It’s outrageously terrible; the sort of madly scattershot concoction that may well be celebrated in the same circles that treasure The Room, Winter’s Tale, and The Boy Next Door in the coming years. It’s a fascinating exhibit of what not to do with a film, where even Trevorrow’s confident direction can’t overcome a script that almost feels like a practical joke. While we shouldn’t be too worried about what Trevorrow will do with Star Wars, it’s hard not to have doubts.
The Book of Henry (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Henry is smarter than an adult
Take a Drink: for every shift in tone
Do a Shot: whenever someone starts crying
Take a Drink: whenever someone does something shitty
Take a Drink: for each instance of Henry’s clairvoyance