“One miscalculation and it all falls apart,” says the titular character in director Colin Trevorrow’s THE BOOK OF HENRY, not just once but twice. It’s an apropos judgement of the film itself. Trevorrow, along with screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz, utterly fail at pulling off this genre-smashing, Rube Goldberg-esque experiment. Being both “too extra” and not “extra” enough, the film is inert and inept, ultimately plateauing far too early. Had they embraced the audacious, bombastic ingredients, the cocktail would have been much more palatable.
Eleven-year old prodigy Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and his less-smart younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) live in a small, dull town. Their mother Sarah (Naomi Watts) has a mysterious, LONG-KISS-GOODNIGHT-ish background – though that’s never fully explored. Both sickeningly precocious tots suffer from EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE syndrome, speaking like a forty-five year old man wrote their dialogue. They also run the household like the parent, balancing the checkbooks and insisting their video-game playing mother not swear, smoke or booze. Henry engages in some adversarial banter with his mom’s friend, Sheila (Sarah Silverman), who dresses like she’s cosplaying MORTAL THOUGHTS. Henry has noticed his classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her step-father Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris) – discovered through REAR WINDOW-ing this un-manic-pixie-dream-girl-next-door. Since Mr. Sickleman is the police chief, all Henry’s efforts to go to the authorities – like the principal he calls by her first name, and the head of child services – are futile. Against a ticking clock of sorts, Henry takes matters into his own hands, concocting a highly contrived scheme involving his mom and the victim next door.
It should say a lot that I use the above four movies to describe the jumbled chaos that is one film. To really hammer home the point, I’ll drop a few more. For what should’ve equaled the deliriously messy delight of WINTER’S TALE or COLLATERAL BEAUTY turns out to be a comatose, schizophrenic plot that wallows in stale, rote tonal shifts. The first act is full of twee, “quirk for quirk’s sake” – like one eyeball-roll-inducing sequence with Henry sporting steampunk goggles as Michael Giacchino’s plucky, pushy score pervades. It’s here where Henry posits that, “violence isn’t the worst thing – it’s apathy.” There’s an extremely tertiary storyline involving alcoholic Sheila where Trevorrow goes handheld for Sarah’s conversation with her, resulting in Paul Greengrass-like shaky cam. Their chat isn’t made intimate with this artificial technique – it’s made annoying. All this awkward set-up then morphs into a sick kid “weepie-of-the-week” TV movie, complete with manipulative close-ups of Tremblay, as John Schwartzman’s once-warm cinematography turns chilly.
Things then take a swan dive into revenge-thriller as the filmmakers embrace ludicrous details in a limp hug: An eleven-year-old buys a car! Mom seriously entertains orders to kill from a child! Child talent show levity is cross-cut with stressful adult situations! A character is lured into the woods with a whistle! It may sound like outrageous fun, but the filmmakers don’t commit to those hairpin turns. Instead, the twists come across as hare-brained as the lunacy is played with a straight-face. It can’t even play its tune like THE DRESSMAKER, whose shifts happen at breakneck speed – if you didn’t like the genre, in ten minutes it would change to another. No, the filmmakers’ vision here is more in line with THE JUDGE – sentimental schmaltz gone awry.
Listen, this isn’t the actors’ fault. They are tasked with the impossible, attempting to make the sub-standard material sing. They’re just following orders – specifically Watts when she’s apparently instructed to take her character’s grief to “11” during one scene. Lieberher is given the herculean task of carrying the film on his small shoulders, and he does what he can with it. He’s a skillful, talented performer the material can’t hobble despite its efforts. Tremblay is decent, but sadly relegated to a backseat. And a beardy Lee Pace, playing a neurosurgeon, is positively dreamy as the scruffy Jake Gyllenhaal substitute, in a romantic relationship that fails to materialize.
Overall, THE BOOK OF HENRY feels like a “piss-poor beach read,” rather than something worth reading into.
THE BOOK OF HENRY is now playing.