Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenplay: Gregg Hurwitz
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris
Runtime: 105 Minutes
There are varying degrees of understanding for bad movies, like year’s The Mummy remake being a naked and empty-headed studio production striving for the profits in the international market, or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room which is so incompetent on every level that has enjoyed a life of cult status through its midnight screenings and irony riddled fan base. But The Book of Henry is something else; a film so incomprehensible in purpose, so out of step with human emotion, so wildly offensive in its handling of content, tone and construction that it genuinely baffles the mind as to how this managed to be produced by living, breathing, sentient human beings.
Where to even begin?
Well, for a start the premise itself is bad enough to begin with. Supposedly a deconstruction of a whiz kid narrative with a dark and nasty twist in the tale, the screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz strives for a difficulty in interpretation but comes up shockingly short in execution on both a narrative and directorial level. In the hands of a stronger writer and a more capable director, this might have been salvageable as a unique oddity, but here it’s a complete tonal disaster that only gets worse as the film goes on.
Trevorrow’s visual leanings on the works of Amblin dyes the film as a twee and dainty portrait that is completely at odds with some genuinely horrifying story beats regarding dying children, sexual abuse, paedophilia and murderous retribution – only made worse by a horribly misjudged score by the otherwise reliable Michael Giacchino, that plays everything for sentiment and just comes across as mawkish and unearned.
‘Misjudged’ really is the key word here. As if the premise wasn’t a cobbled together catastrophe of plot points in its own right, it’s the presentation of the characters that come across worst of all, which is a real shame because some of the performances – chiefly from the young Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay – are really quite good.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) might be the genius at the core of the story, but he doesn’t really have a character and its baffling that his family and friends see him as some sort of beloved prodigy while the film does little to support him as anything beyond a boring, ridged sociopath. The abused girl next door exists solely as a plot device, with Maddie Ziegler seemingly cast for the purpose of a single dance sequence that arrives out of the blue and with a confounding point to the story. While other characters come and go without reason, make decisions based on celestial coincidence and read lines of gut-busting perplexing as to their intent and meaning.
But Naomi Watts as mother Susan is the worst of all; a barely functioning single parent who places all the weight and burden of her adult life on the shoulders of her child, plays video games instead of paying bills, and yet still questions whether or not she is a good mother (she isn’t). It could be mistaken for her having brain damage or some mental disability, but she’s literally just an idiot who unquestionably follows every order that Henry gives her with no real attempt to question or intervene – and her stifling inability to process human emotion or decision making is something that applies to literally every other member of the grown-up cast.
But then, halfway through the film, there is an unforgivably manipulative plot development that transforms The Book of Henry from its apparently comfortable family-friendly roots into a sick, nasty piece of condescending drivel that continues on for another hour – never letting up its jubilant and whimsically brain-dead tone and attitudes and plays the entire thing straight right up until its disgustingly misplaced and inexplicable climax.
All the while at the heart of the storm is Colin Trevorrow with his terrifyingly dense manner of approaching the material. Completely unaware of what he has produced, he charts a fanciful and quirky trek out of this sick minded story oblivious to his ill-suited attitudes toward it. The tonal shifts come hard and land with a sharp and piercing clatter of howling screeches, culminating in a ‘race against the clock’ montage cut between an assassination attempt on a neighbours life and an unfolding school talent show that will leave many in a state of emotional disorder and slackjawed disbelief. If it really was Trevorrow’s decision to stage this sequence in this way, then it might be quite definitive that he is just a bad filmmaker.
The Book of Henry charts entire new territories of bad; a rancid, malformed and sick minded pileup of inept decision making on a creative level for any major studio to make. It’s hard to see anyone involved in the production of above voting age coming out of this clean. For writer Gregg Hurwitz, this might be the last we hear of him in any major production. For Naomi Watts, she may have to find something challenging to scrub her pallet clean. But for Colin Trevorrow, this might come as a wakeup call with red alarms blaring at the mention of his name like a swollen asterisk. Had a name such as his not been attached to said production given his upcoming work on Star Wars: Episode IX and Jurassic World, it might have fallen to the wayside of the mainstream press, but instead stands today under scrutiny and ridicule as one of the most god-awful pieces of unfathomable garbage to be released this year.