MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Book of Henry’ is a bafflingly ridiculous tearjerker

Thanks to an absolutely ridiculous plot that plays itself completely seriously, this Colin Trevorrow film falls squarely on its face

| June 21, 2017

If New Hollywood is about anything, it’s about indie directors being handed the keys to massive franchises. From Gareth Edwards helming the “Godzilla” reboot (and “Rogue One”) right after his indie “Monsters,” to Jordan Vogt-Roberts helming “Kong: Skull Island” after moderate success with “The Kings of Summer,” or Jon Watts directing the upcoming “Spider-Man: Homecoming” after a small hit in “Cop Car,” Hollywood loves to reward slightly successful white men with franchises right off the bat, but none more than Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow, known for his debut with the quirky, yet commercially unsuccessful “Safety Not Guaranteed,” he was given the chance of a lifetime with directing the highly anticipated sequel, “Jurassic World,” which ended up grossing over $1.6 billion at the box office. The issue with that came in critical reaction to Trevorrow’s direction, which many surmised that he was too in over his head to create anything truly spectacular on that scale, which I agree. That still didn’t deter Lucasfilm from handing Trevorrow the reins to “Star Wars: Episode IX,” which many have decried as a bad idea. What’s interesting with Trevorrow is that, despite this success, he has returned to small indie filmmaking with “The Book of Henry” to prove that he has the dramatic chops to handle such a massive film.

And Trevorrow dropped the ball. Actually, Trevorrow blew up the factory where the balls are made.

Henry (Jaeden Liberher) is an 11 year-old boy living in small town New York with his immature, but loving mother, Susan (Naomi Watts) and little brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Henry is a child genius who handles most of the family’s financial affairs for his mother, while also crafting Rube Goldberg-like machines for the enjoyment of his brother. When he realizes that his next door neighbor and family friend, Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her step-father, police commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris), he must set out to make sure, with the help of his mother, that she is rescued from such an environment.

From the sound of it, “The Book of Henry” sounds like a Spielbergian drama that could hold a lot of dramatic and emotional heft if handled correctly, but there are so many different twists and revelations that I can’t say scattered throughout the film that take the film from slightly implausible to baffling ridiculousness that it’s hard to believe that a film like this would have the nerve to take itself seriously. If anything, “The Book of Henry” almost feels like a satire of ’80s Spielberg films that Trevorrow is straining so hard to achieve in this.

But I will focus on the good that “The Book of Henry” has for a moment, primarily in its lead performance and some artistic choices. The truth of the matter is that we all could watch Watts act for days, to the point where I was one of the few people on earth who actually enjoyed “Shut In” last November (also starring Tremblay). While her character is enigmatic to the point of incoherency, and she finds herself doing completely bonkers things for her child, Watts does deliver the best she can here. The rest of the film’s cast goes through the motions, not really being able to overcome the film’s completely inaneness. Even then, sometimes Watts even struggled to make a character choice work at one point in the film.

The other thing in “The Book of Henry” that I liked was the score from Michael Giacchino. Giacchino is one of the few composers who knows everything about making movie magic through music, and hearing his score for “The Book of Henry” almost makes you want to ignore the fact that what you’re watching is complete and utter nonsense.

The thing about “The Book of Henry” is that it makes no sense whatsoever. I have no idea why screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz decided on any of the thematic choices that he did, but it just made the film feel almost disconnected from each act of the film with each curveball that he throws at the camera. Twists aren’t a bad writing trope, as long as they keep the story going, but with each twist in “The Book of Henry,” the film grinds to a sputtering halt as it tries to compensate for the complete and utter tonal shifts that each twist has to offer. Also, when a film has completely improbable twists, the film has to run with it with a winking eye (ex. Brian de Palma’s “Passion”), but when a film takes ridiculous twists seriously, you’re treated to a film that feels incredibly self-important and brutally tone-deaf.

Trevorrow isn’t an awful director at all, he’s just a director who works better with a straightforward screenplay that’s pre-developed. I don’t think Trevorrow is a filmmaker who should be taking on blockbuster films, let alone a Star Wars film, but would work much better along the scale of something like “The Book of Henry,” albeit a film with a better script. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a very quirky and admirable movie that works very well, but handing the reins to something more ambitious seems like a reach for studios, and continuing to let mediocre filmmakers take on huge projects, even after something as disastrous at this film, is downright disrespectful to all the talented filmmakers still stuck struggling to fund their smaller movies, especially when Lucasfilm is having an incredibly hard time hiring female filmmakers or filmmakers of color, which they seem to publicly accept at this point.

There isn’t much I can say about “The Book of Henry” without spoiling it, which I almost want to do because I don’t want any of you to actually see it, but that would be possibly the most irresponsible thing to do as a film critic, so I’ll just accept that my review might not be able to eviscerate this in detail quite as much as I want it to. That being said, this movie is basically a disaster with Watts’ performance and Giacchino’s score doing its best to compensate for an absolute dumpster fire of a screenplay. I know Lucasfilm is going through the struggle of the recent firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from the Han Solo film, but why not continue with the trend and put someone who knows how to handle something as big as Star Wars in charge of the last film in this pivotal new series. I don’t lack hope in Trevorrow’s future, as any white dude can direct a terrible film and recover from it pretty quickly, but handing Episode IX to the helmer of something like this is downright disrespectful. “The Book of Henry” needs to stay bound shut.

1/5

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Liberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Tonya Pinkins, and Dean Norris.
Runtime: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.

Focus Features presents, a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/Double Nickel Entertainment production, a Colin Trevorrow film, “The Book of Henry”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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