Once in a while a movie comes along that is almost fascinating to watch because it’s so badly conceived, although one ultimately wonders if it was worth spending the time. The Book of Henry is one of those movies. Directed by Colin Trevorrow from a script by novelist Gregg Hurwitz, the movie is a mess of conflicting plot strands, half-baked thematic impulses and mutating tones, with none of it ever gelling, much of it shamelessly manipulative and, especially in its second half, all of it ridiculous even from the filmmaker who had Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle through a jungle with velociraptors in Jurassic World.
The kind of jarring tonal shifts and unreal plot developments that drag The Book of Henry down probably work better in a novel, where the point of view of unreliable narrators can be used to detail events in either metaphorical or even allegorical terms. But Hurwitz and Trevorrow play the convoluted and nonsensical narrative straight, dooming not just the film but the actors and the viewers to working their way through plot developments that are jaw-droppingly ludicrous.
The story focuses on the Carpenter family, ostensibly led by single mom Susan (Watts); the real head of the household is her 11-year-old son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher from Midnight Special), one of those precocious genius kids we only ever meet in movies. While Susan toils as a waitress in a local greasy spoon (that looks like it was transplanted from a ‘70s movie even though this takes place more or less in the present), Henry plays the stock market online and has amassed a decent nest egg for the family, while also taking care of kid-at-heart Susan and his actual kid brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay from Room), who has a problem with bullies at school.
As you might guess, Henry has a strong righteous streak within him as well, which is why he is determined to save Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the little girl next door who is getting sexually abused by her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris stuck in his scrunched-face heavy mode). How do we know that this is happening? Because Henry is able to watch through a conveniently open window in Glenn’s house that he never closes even though he’s the chief of police and would probably know about such things. That is just the first of many plot points that strain the story’s credibility until it snaps like a broken twig.
At this stage, it is almost impossible to discuss any more of what happens in The Book of Henry without giving away some major plot turns, so we’ll be as circumspect as possible. Henry decides that the only way to save Christina is to kill Glenn, but through an unforeseen series of circumstances, he is unable to complete the mission himself and must hand the job off to Susan. She takes on the role of assassin without even questioning what she is doing; it’s as if she thinks she is still at the controls of one of the first-person shooters she sits around playing when she’s either not working or downing bottles of wine with her vaguely alcoholic friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman).
The movie’s latter third, in which a black-clad Susan stalks Glenn with a high-powered rifle while receiving instructions from Henry that he couldn’t possibly administer even under the best of circumstances, drew muffled guffaws from the small audience we saw the film with. Bonus points go to Watts for gamely doing what she can, but even this genuinely good actress labors clumsily under the burden that the film puts on her.
The Book of Henry whiplashes furiously from indie-style family comedy to heavy-handed tearjerker to mystery thriller, yet there’s not a moment where any it feels anything but phony or ham-fisted. As the final plot implausibilities click into place (such as the way the school principal makes a sudden realization about poor Christina), the viewer is likely to find themselves checking out for good, or just checking their timepiece. Watts is not good in the movie but we can’t say for sure it’s her fault, since no one else really rises to the occasion. Silverman and Norris have thankless, one-dimensional roles (although Silverman has one sweet scene with Henry), while Ziegler just has to stare blankly into the distance. Lieberher probably comes off the best, only in that his Henry isn’t as excruciatingly annoying as he could be; but even he is sorely tested by the material he has been given to plow through.
Much has been made about the fact that Trevorrow is directing Star Wars: Episode IX next, but he landed that opportunity based on the fact that he reportedly did largely trouble-free work delivering Jurassic World on time and budget. With tentpoles like that and Star Wars, it’s a given that the director will be surrounded by an army of the best technicians and craftspeople that Hollywood can offer, and especially with the latter you have the entire Lucasfilm machine behind him. More worrying is that he is writing Episode IX as well: based on both Jurassic World (which was pretty much a by-the-numbers remake/hybrid of the first two films in that series) but now especially this misfire, we have to wonder about his story and character instincts. The Book of Henry is a tome best left unread.
The Book of Henry is out in theaters today (Friday, June 16).