×

Film Review: ‘The Book of Henry’

It's the tale of a child genius, a disease-of-the-week weeper, and a drama about the abuser next door. No wonder it's laughable.

Director:
Colin Trevorrow
With:
Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Tonya Pinkins, Bobby Moynihan.
Release Date:
Jun 14, 2017

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4572792/

There’s the kind of bad movie that just sits there, unfolding with grimly predictable monotony. Then there’s the kind where the badness expands and metastasizes, taking on a jaw-dropping life of its own, pushing through to ever-higher levels of garishness. “The Book of Henry,” directed by Colin Trevorrow from Gregg Hurwitz’s script, is of the latter, you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-disbelieve-it variety.

The film’s muted yet still rather flamboyant terribleness derives from the fact that it seems to be juggling three or four borderline schlock genres at once. It starts off as one of those movies about a precocious kid genius — and on that score, for half an hour or so, it’s actually rather watchable. Then it evolves into a tale of the child abuser next door. Then it morphs into a disease-of-the-week weeper, at which point the awfulness is only just getting started. For “The Book of Henry” — I’m trying not to give too much away — is a movie about how an 11-year-old brainiac lays a trap for the child abuser, all as a way of taking everyone through the grieving process. It’s not entirely clear whether you should be laughing, crying, or waving a white flag.

In the picture-postcard town of Cavalry, New York, Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) lives with his feisty, affectionate, video-game-playing single mom, Susan (Naomi Watts), and his little brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), and he knows everything about everything. He knows how to play the stock market (and win!), which is why he handles the family finances. He knows advanced mathematics and medical science and how to build Rube Goldberg contraptions in his treehouse — and more than that, he knows how to feel and express things with adult emotion. He’s not one of those Hollywood whiz kids whose head is bigger than his heart. He’s a genius of humanity as well!

Jaeden Lieberher is the best thing in the movie. As Henry, he never smiles, but he’s sly and quizzical and engaged, with a look of woodland-animal alertness that reminded me of the young Leonardo DiCaprio (remember him in “This Boy’s Life”?). When Henry, using his binoculars and his intuition, figures out that Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the sweet but shy girl next door who is one of his sixth-grade classmates, is undergoing something terrible at the hands of her police-inspector stepfather, a real get-your-leaves-off-my-lawn type named Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), he’s compelled to become her savior.

But then that pesky illness gets in the way. All the objections one might raise to a movie that features a tragic ailment crashing in out of nowhere are at play here: that it’s a way of manipulating the audience, of programming our responses rather than earning them. Trevorrow, who made “Safety Not Guaranteed” and the highly impersonal stomp machine “Jurassic World” (he’s also set to be the director of “Star Wars: Episode IX”), knows a thing or two about programming responses, though he isn’t bad with actors. He draws out Sarah Silverman as Susan’s snippy boozer waitress pal, and Watts lets her feelings shine right through her skin. The actress doesn’t hit a false note — at least, not until the disease drama gets put on hold. But it’s here that “The Book of Henry” enters a zone of domesticated preposterousness.

At this point, we’re asked to believe that Henry is such a genius that he can see and anticipate … anything. He can hold an entire conversation in advance (he’ll know just what you’re going to ask, and just when you’re going to swear). The picture veers slowly and steadily into kitsch, especially during the sequence when it crosscuts between a grade-school talent show and an attempt to vanquish Glenn with a little old-fashioned justice purchased at a gun shop. We’re supposed to be glimpsing the tale’s grand design, but what we see, for the first time, is that the entire thing is a crock: a film dreamed up by people who are moving “human situations” around like pieces on a checkerboard.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Book of Henry'

Reviewed at Tribeca Screening Room (Los Angeles Film Festival — opener), June 14, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: A Focus Features release of a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Double Nickel Entertainment production. Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman, Carla Hacken. Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell, Nick Meyer, John Penotti, Bruce Toll.

Crew: Director: Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay: Gregg Hurwitz. Camera (color, widescreen): John Schwartzman. Editor: Kevin Stitt.

With: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Tonya Pinkins, Bobby Moynihan.

More Film

  • San-Sebastian

    San Sebastian, Zurich to Take Up SXSW, Tribeca Titles at Newly Created Film Markets

    The San Sebastian and Zurich film festivals have teamed to launch new film markets that will cater to the gaps created by the cancellation of SXSW and the postponement of Tribeca due to the coronavirus pandemic. The programming of both fall festivals will feature titles originally scheduled for spring fests SXSW and Tribeca. The markets [...]

  • Coronavirus Placeholder COVID19 Variety

    Japan's Toei Closes Tokyo Studio After Coronavirus Infection

    Toei closed its Tokyo studio Tuesday after actor Reo Komiya was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The star of the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager,” a sci-fi/action show broadcast on the TV Asahi network, seventeen-year-old Komiya tested positive for the virus while shooting new episodes at the studio. His condition is not known at the present time. A [...]

  • Aqute Media Takes North America on

    Aqute Media Takes North America on Helen Reddy Biopic 'I Am Woman'

    London-based sales agent WestEnd Films has closed a North American deal with Jeff Sackman and Berry Meyerowitz’s company Aqute Media for “I Am Woman,” the biopic about Australian singer Helen Reddy. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival as the opening film of the Special Presentations section. The film also recently [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    Sheffield Doc/Fest Rejigs With Fall Programming, Virtual Forums in Lieu of Festival

    The Sheffield Doc/Fest pitching forums, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market are to take place virtually in June, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the June festival is being replaced by a series of programs that will take place on weekends through the fall. The planned programming will include film screenings, talks, panels, [...]

  • Southland Tales

    Streamer Mubi Partners With Prada Foundation on 'Perfect Failures' Film Series

    Specialist streaming service Mubi has teamed up with fashion label Prada’s Fondazione Prada foundation on “Perfect Failures,” a curated selection of movies deemed to have been “widely misunderstood” upon their release. The joint project will launch on both the Mubi platform and the Fondazione Prada’s website on April 5 with U.S. director Richard Kelly’s 2006 flop [...]

  • Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) in

    'Morbius,' 'Ghostbusters' Sequel and More Sony Movies Pushed Back to 2021

    Sony Pictures has pushed back many of its major tentpoles — including “Morbius,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “Uncharted” and “Peter Rabbit 2” — to next year, the studio announced on Monday. Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” has moved from July 10, 2020, to March 5, 2021; Jared Leto’s “Morbius” has been pushed back from July 31, 2020, to [...]

  • Anne Hathaway to Star in 'French

    Film News Roundup: Anne Hathaway Stars in 'French Children Don't Throw Food'

    In today’s film news roundup, Anne Hathaway will portray an American journalist in Paris, blockbuster director Michael Bay signs with Sony Pictures, and “Extra Ordinary” and “The Etruscan Smile” are added to arthouse streaming services. CASTING Anne Hathaway is starring in the movie “French Children Don’t Throw Food,” based on Pamela Druckerman’s autobiographical book, “Bringing [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content