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Book of Henry, The

Focus Features // PG-13 // June 16, 2017
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 15, 2017 | E-mail the Author
As a film critic, one of the responsibilities each writer juggles is how to approach spoilers. In some cases, aspects of a film that many readers would consider spoilers are also necessary to write about the film's qualities. That's true of The Book of Henry, skyrocketing director Colin Trevorrow's little indie detour between Jurassic World and the ninth Star Wars movie -- the reason being that Henry is a wild fumble of tone and material, packed to the brim with bad and/or inexplicable narrative and dramatic choices, all of which are played with an astonishingly straight face.

The movie starts out cloying, but relatively simple. Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is the precocious movie kid to end all precocious movie kids, an obnoxiously cute genius, more interested in keeping an eye on the family's finances while he works the stock market than playing video games. Instead, it's his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) who spends time with Gears of War, with younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) providing a fulcrum for stomach-churning banter between all three of them that never once sounds like actual human beings talking to one another. Henry's most irritating quality, encapsulated in a speech he gives to his class about "legacy", is a contradictory, simultaneous embrace of pessimism and optimism. He won't allow a fellow classmate to keep believing that dodgeball is an Olympic sport and continually pressures his mom to buy a new car with better safety features, and yet he is furious when he sees any sort of injustice or obliviousness in the world around him (well, except for Sarah Silverman as Susan's friend and co-worker Sheila, whose potential alcoholism is played mostly for laughs).

With this setup, it comes as no surprise that when Henry sees his neighbor Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris) doing something horrifying to his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), he's furious, and tries everything he can to help her. At this point, we arrive at the first of the film's two or three massive tonal shifts, and the one that's probably the easiest for people to guess (even if I'll still refrain from revealing it). The end result is that Henry has no choice but to turn to Susan and Peter for help bringing Mr. Sickleman to justice. Before Susan climbs fully on board with Henry's point of view, the film isn't particularly bananas, just aggressively manipulative, but from that point on, it veers confidently off in the direction of films such as Safe Haven, Remember Me, and Little Boy, all of which present unintentionally hilarious twists and turns to the audience, oblivious to their own absurdity.

If anything could possibly be clarified by the movie's over-the-top climax, which includes the dramatic intercutting of an elementary school talent show and Jason Bourne-style sniper shenanigans, it's Naomi Watts' reason for signing onto what initially seems like the kind of mom role that over-40 actresses are doomed to die playing. Instead, Hurwitz's screenplay unfurls a laundry list of things for Susan to do: cute comedy (with kids and adults), deep depression, small-town espionage (for a few moments, she channels her new "Twin Peaks" character), action, a hint of romance, with "motherly warmth" coming in pretty low on the totem pole. In one scene, Trevorrow even grinds the movie to a halt so she can whip out a ukulele and sing an entire song. Even though Trevorrow didn't write the script, maybe the wild opportunities provided by the character are meant as penance or apology for the criticism directed at Jurassic World's treatment of Bryce Dallas Howard's character. If so, Watts fans may find the effort satisfactory, but the script still fails its other major female character, Christina. Although there are reasons for her sullen and detached attitude, the movie never treats her like more than a plot device -- even the character's most important scene is half-focused on someone else's reaction instead of Christina's emotional state in order to keep the film's plot wheels turning. It also has to be noted that, while I won't say whether or not Henry's story is true, the movie manages to come to a conclusion without ever mentioning Mr. Sickleman's actual supposed crime. Instead, the movie alludes to his potential misdeeds in a manner that reads as wanting to evoke the worst and darkest possibilities fir the audience's sympathy, without actually putting them off by including anything legitimately harrowing.

Although Trevorrow's previous films, the charming Safety Not Guaranteed and dumb-fun Jurassic World, both got criticism for loose or sloppy screenwriting, at least he and the scripts seemed to be approaching the material from the same angle. Looking at The Book of Henry, it's impossible to tell who exactly the film is for. Is this a tense but fun film about youthful idealism, or a dark thriller for adults? Whatever the intent, Trevorrow lives up to his title character's contradictory nature by accidentally providing the film's only asset: a completely unironic approach to the material, plowing ahead through each new wrinkle Hurwitz introduces without hesitation. Had he stopped to ask questions, the film might've fallen apart, yet instead Trevorrow mitigates the script's self-satisfaction and aggressive calculation by being blind to it, giving the viewer the sense that nobody was at the wheel. In interviews, Trevorrow has mentioned the script went unproduced for 20 years. When the sensation of riding a runaway train is your saving grace, perhaps the naysayers had the right idea.

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