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Monday, September 04, 2017

The Book of Henry

WRITER'S NOTE: I usually only review movies that I see in theaters, and since my local theater never got The Book of Henry during its theatrical release back in June, I never reviewed it.  But, I had a chance to catch up with this film, and it's something I really am desperate to talk about having seen it.  So, I'm going against my policy just this once and reviewing a film that has since left theaters.  The following review also contains spoilers, so you have been warned. 


The Book of Henry is one of the most uncomfortable movies of this, or any other year.  It's a toxic package wrapped up in the good feelings of a Hallmark card.  Does the movie even know what it is trying to say?  I honestly don't know.  It wants to be an uplifting drama about a loving family, then it wants to be the tragic story of a little boy who loses his battle with a tumor, then it wants to be about revenge, with the mother of the family plotting to murder her next door neighbor who is abusing a sweet little girl.  I almost forgot, the murder plot is actually the idea of the little boy who gets sick before he can carry it out, so he asks his mom to do it for him.  If you ever meet someone who says they actually enjoyed this movie, I recommend you check their pulse.

The movie introduces us to the Carpenter family, which is made up of single mother Susan (Naomi Watts), and her two sons Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and Peter (Jacob Tremplay).  While Peter is your standard movie kid, Henry is your standard movie genius kid.  He talks like a preteen Mr. Spock, and is often inventing little gadgets to amuse his younger brother.  Heck, their tree house in the backyard looks like something any kid could put together if they had the assistance of an entire Hollywood film crew.  As for Susan, she dreams of writing children's books, but for now, she's stuck in a job in a diner with her best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman, made up to look like Amy Winehouse for some reason).  When Susan comes home from work, she can be seen playing violent video games, while little Henry settles her finances, invests her money in different companies, and plays the stock market with mom's money.

The Carpenters live in one of those idyllic little neighborhoods that you always see in these kind of movies, while the piano-laden soundtrack by Michael Giacchino twinkles away, trying to underscore every single moment with a forced sense of tranquility and innocence.  Everyone is generally nice to everyone else.  But Henry knows there's a dark side to his street, and it happens to live right next door to his house.  In that house, there's a young girl who goes to his school that he likes named Christina (Maddie Ziegler), and Henry knows that her stern stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris) beats her.  Christina is always coming to school with fresh cuts and bruises, and when Henry spies on her through his bedroom window, he can see how afraid she is of the man.  Henry tries to tell the Principal at his school and even Child Protection Services about what's going on, but no one will listen to him, because there's not enough evidence.  That, and Glen just happens to be the local Police Commissioner, and he has deep ties to the government which protects him and covers up his deeds.

Up to now, The Book of Henry has more or less resembled a TV family drama that somehow got blown up on the big screen.  But upcoming plot developments will drive the movie so far off the rails, you start to wonder what both director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and writer Gregg Hurwitz were thinking.  (Supposedly, this script was written 20 years ago, and Trevorrow really pulled for it to finally get made.) It's at this point that Henry decides that if the law will not help poor Christina, then he will just have to take the law into his own hands.  He goes into town, investigating the local gun shop, studying security cameras, and basically plots out the perfect foolproof murder.  He jots all this information down in a little book that he always carries with him where he writes down his hopes, dreams and ideas.  Henry is quite the calculating little 11-year-old, as he is able to create an alibi, the perfect place for the murder to occur, and even the time it should happen.  But then, tragedy strikes.  Henry's been having a lot of headaches lately, and after suffering from a seizure, he is rushed to the hospital, where the kindly but glum-faced doctor (Lee Pace) gives him a dire diagnosis.

There are tears, a lot of sad bedside talks, and that damn music score pounds at our emotions with all the subtlety of a semi.  After the kid is gone, Susan is distraught and aimless in her life, even neglecting poor little Peter.  But then she discovers Henry's book, and even a series of tapes that Henry left behind where he gives Susan step-by-step instructions on how to carry out his murder plot without him.  Susan actually goes along with the plan, at one point saying to herself, "I am the worst mom ever", which is the only intelligent line of dialogue in this movie.  Does she carry out with her actions?  I'll leave that for you to discover if you are unwise enough to see this.  Regardless, the movie still tries to be uplifting and jovial while Susan is essentially plotting to murder her neighbor.  I don't remember the last time I have seen a movie fail so hard at juggling its tonal shifts.  Maybe a director like David Lynch could have made something dark and memorable out of this.  He at least would have had the good sense to not try to make it a feelgood movie, and see it for the total insanity it actually is.

But the movie as it is doesn't work in the slightest.  The sentimental moments feel forced, the melodrama is calculated, and the whole murder/revenge plot feels completely off, because the filmmakers try to treat it with the same level of sweetness and sincerity as the rest of the movie.  The talented cast are obviously trying up there on the screen, but they can't keep the leaden and tone deaf script from crushing them.    But then, I don't think any actors could survive this one.  Honestly, this movie may have needed a lighter touch.  Trevorrow spells out every emotion, and practically screams how we are supposed to feel.  Meanwhile, the audience just sits there confused by the tonal shifts, and the just plain oddness of the piece.  There is no meaning here, and nothing feels genuine.  This is the kind of movie that wants to wear its heart on its sleeve, but the heart is artificial.  As for the brains behind the story, they're nowhere to be found.

The Book of Henry received some of the harshest reviews of the year when it opened almost three months ago, and while it deserved to be panned, it did kind of fascinate me in a perverse way.  It's certainly not boring, as the movie is so wrong-headed, I was kind of excited to see what would happen next.  I can't recommend this in any good faith, but I almost want to, as we're certain to never get a movie like this ever again.

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