Film Review: ‘The Book of Henry’

The Book of Henry
Courtesy of Focus Features

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.

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.

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.

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  1. Dave Evans says:

    I saw TBOH tonight. Best film I’ve seen in a while. The fantastical Henry character brings the story to life in a really innovative way and the acting is powerful from all the characters. Film critics? Pah! – they just live in their own little world.

  2. Peter says:

    Wow, these are probably the worst reviews I’ve read since years…this is not just a bad film.

    This is a spectacular demonstration of artistic incompetence.

    If “The Book of Henry” is half as entertaining than its reviews, I might see it like “Gigli” or “The Lovely Bones” or “The Woman in the Water”…all high-budget trash classics.

    The critic Vincent Mancini called it “singularly tone deaf tastelessness”, so this might top all the others.

    Future camp classic!

  3. Fagin says:

    Colin T. is certainly the man to blame. After the “Jurassic World” hit he could have done anything & he decided to do this low-budget garbage to polish his ego. You see? This is what happens when you give ‘artists’ total creative control. But Colin T. was never an artist to begin with…he’s not very talented & he pnly got the “Jurassic World” gig because Spielberg needed a puppet.

  4. Gil says:

    LOL! Great review.

    I always suspected that Colin Trevorrow simply was lucky.

    “Jurassic World” didn’t show any talent at all: It was a producer’s movie where Spielberg closely followed the blueprint of his own “Jurassic Park”. Trevorrow didn’t add anything of interest, at least I couldn’t see it. “Godzilla” certainly had the touch of F/X wiz Gareth Edwards etc., “World War Z” had a certain Marc Forster touch, but “Jurassic World” could have been directed by anybody.

    I guess, Treverrow’s ego was so big after the mega success of “Jurassic World”, that he thought:
    “I will out-Spielberg the man himself!”

    Judging from this review, he certainly did ;-)

    PS: Please, get someone else for “Star Wars”. It’s not too late.

  5. Cath says:

    So there’s not even the excuse that this was a convoluted or complicated book first because it sounds like one of those teenage novels that are split into three volumes. Only way all those story threads would make sense.

  6. Brie says:

    Star Wars is the most overrated film series in history. Maybe this guy will make it interesting.

  7. Melonie says:

    Jurassic Park was a hit because it was an empty slick, paint by numbers block buster without a soul. He’s all wrong for Star Wars.

  8. J says:

    Get him off Star Wars. Please. As if the signs weren’t clear before, here’s the proof. Disney & Lucasfilm, if you actually care about the legacy of SW and its fans like you CLAIM to, find a more appropriate director. Let’s end the episodic story on a high note! Maybe give him a standalone SW film? Please listen to the actual FANS, find a new director!

  9. Denise says:

    Why does the LA Film Festival open with what may be a poor film rather than go with a potentially decent independent film from an unknown filmmaker?

  10. Nas says:

    So… Is it too late to pull Trevorrow off Episode 9?

  11. John Miller says:

    Not good news, since Disney has handed the critical end of the “Star Wars” saga to the Treverrow, who directed this turkey.

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