Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Book of Henry

Grade : C- Year : 2017 Director : Colin Trevorrow Running Time : 1hr 45min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

In a way, “The Book of Henry” was an ideal theatrical follow-up to “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Whereas Michael Bay’s latest robots explosion film lived down to every expectation, the savage reviews, along with curious response of audiences, to Colin Trevorrow’s first film since “Jurassic World” had me curious as to what I would get. The film did not disappoint, but neither did it make for a good movie. While its sensibility is certainly closer to his first feature, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” than it is to “Jurassic World,” Trevorrow’s film lacks the consistent tone and emotional logic of that film, or any film really. This film goes all over the place.

The issues with tone and logic ultimately lie with the script by Gregg Hurwitz, which alternates between family drama, crime thriller and black comedy. I tried to explain the story to coworkers after getting out of the movie yesterday, and it sounded every bit as bizarre as you would expect. We begin with a single mother (Susan, played by Naomi Watts) and her two children, the brilliant Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and innocent Peter (Jacob Tremblay, from “Room”). Henry is very much the man of the house after, what we gather, Susan and her husband divorced (mention of alimony leads me to this conclusion), although Susan is not terribly attentive as a mother. She tucks them into bed at night, and makes sure they get to school, but chores like raking the leaves are left undone, and she’s more interested in playing video games than her financial situation, which she leaves for Henry. One day, however, the life the three have together is upended when Henry finds himself with cancer, which he will die from. At this point, the film really gets strange as Susan and Peter are left to deal with their grief as Henry’s doctor (Lee Pace) while also showing increased concern for the girl next door (Maddie Ziegler), whom Henry suspected of being an abuse victim of her police commissioner step-father (Dean Norris).

Even if I end up not really liking it, a film such as “The Book of Henry” is always worth watching to see how it goes off the rails, and to figure out why it does. That’s a lot more interesting than the latest franchise blockbuster that treads familiar territory, and bores you senseless doing so. The plot description you read above should be a pretty clear sign of how the film fails, as it dramatically shifts gears from a family drama (with comedic elements) to a thriller that hinges on the plan of a dead 11-year-old to kill their next door neighbor, whose abuse has been swept under the rug by authorities who trust his position. Oh yeah, I didn’t mention that Henry documented his concern for the girl in a book, as well as thought through a plan for his mother to enact. Of course, for that to work, we have to see dramatic shift in Susan from immature single mother, who enjoys video games and getting drunk with her best friend (played by Sarah Silverman), into a level of competency that just doesn’t come naturally for the character. Watts seems much more at home in the character in the second half of the film than the first, probably because it’s difficult to see her as not being a mature human being. It’s very easy to buy Henry and Peter as they are, and Lieberher and Tremblay, respectively, are very good in the roles. Unfortunately, this film wastes them by becoming unintentionally hilarious as Henry is leading Susan, seemingly from beyond the grave (actually, by a tape recording of instructions he left her), to do something truly appalling, even if it’s in the service of good. I was very much reminded of Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” with its otherworldly connection between the living and the dead, but for all that film’s faults, at least it felt like a tonally coherent film throughout. “The Book of Henry” jumps from one type of film into another, and neither one feels like a complete work.

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