I’m honestly shocked that a movie could possibly make as many bad decisions in one go as Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry. It is easily the worst film of the year, somehow being utterly and obnoxiously predictable, and yet completely baffling in its nonsense. Nothing about it fits together, the scenes are shockingly horrendous, and the otherwise talented actors seem like they’re in a middle school play, and I don’t mean that as a compliment for the actual middle schoolers. This is, flat out, a bad film.
The following synopsis will contain a spoiler for the first half of the movie not revealed in the trailer. It happens fairly early on, and is kind of important, thus my reason for doing so, but if you wish to remain unspoiled for this abortion of a film, then feel free to skip this paragraph.
Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is a child genius. He’s made almost a million dollars in the stock market, he builds Rube Goldberg machines for fun, he has a clear understanding of philosophical ideas, and he can understand advanced medical terms. He lives with his childish waitress mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and his normal younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). He has a crush on the neighbor girl, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the step-daughter of the police commissioner, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Whenever he isn’t building or solving world crises, Henry is writing in his little red journal. About a third of the way through this movie, Henry develops an inoperable brain tumor and dies. Everyone’s distraught at his death, especially his mother and brother. Eventually, Peter honors his brother’s dying wish and delivers the little red book to his mother. The book explains that Henry has figured out that Glenn is abusing Christina, no one will believe them because he’s the commissioner and his brother is the head of CPS in the area, and the only way to save her is to murder Glenn. And so Susan must put the plan into motion in order to save a young girl and honor her son’s dying wish.
Jesus Christ, I don’t know where to begin with that synopsis. Actually, I do: I just made this movie sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. But believe me when I say no, it’s not. This is the bad kind of “white-knuckle movie,” where instead of gripping your seat to deal with the suspense, you’re gripping your seat because you can’t believe how many dumb decisions they’re making. Each of this film’s three acts is bad in and of itself, but it’s somehow worse because they don’t connect in the slightest. Let’s start with act one, which I call the “Wes Anderson Rejected Cliché” act. This is the sequence where we get to experience all of the film’s worst indie twee moments at once, like Henry. The problem with creating a child prodigy is you have to know where to draw the line. No genius is perfect at everything-they have to have some areas where they aren’t perfect. Take Sherlock Holmes-the man is a genius, and can pick up on the smallest details, but he had to give up the “useless” information to do so, like the answer to “What’s the center of the universe?” Henry doesn’t have this issue, which not only makes him an unbelievable character, it makes him an insufferable one, as there’s no shock at what will come out of his mouth next. It’s also not very original to set up a situation where the kid acts more like the parent and the parent acts more like the kid. It’s a plot that’s been done before (hi, Gilmore Girls), but rarely so on-the-nose. Susan Carpenter works at a diner with her best friend Sheila, played by Sarah Silverman, where they joke about what they’ll do when they become rich. Except…Susan already is rich, because Henry is good with stocks. So why is this here? It’s not funny, it’s not charming, so why, other than to confuse and infuriate me? Susan also plays video games in her free time (and believe me when I say it is not as interesting as it sounds to watch an Academy Award-nominated actress pretend to play video games like a 13-year-old boy) and writes children’s books. She even reads some of these books, which we are supposed to think are great, but really are quite terribly written. Oh, and we learn the evil neighbor is named “Sickleman,” because HE’S A SICK MAN, DO YOU GET IT? DO YOU, ASSH*LE?!? All of this plays like a twee indie dramedy, like some sort of douchey Moonrise Kingdom, and it’s already enough to earn this movie a D+. I swear, I looked at my watch at one point to see how long it had been going on, and it had only been fifteen minutes. I spent most of this portion of the movie thinking to myself, “Man, do I want this kid to just die. That would make this movie so much better. Does that make me a bad person?”
Well, as it turns out, that happened, no it didn’t, and the answer is yes. The second part of this movie was painful to sit through, and not because it’s about an eleven (almost twelve, they’ll point out) year-old boy dying. No, it’s painful because every once in a while, someone will give a hint of a good performance, and then the film will immediately ruin it two seconds later. Take, for example, the scene where Sarah Silverman, who exchanges “witty banter” with Henry in all of her previous scenes, comes to visit him in the hospital. Silverman pauses in the doorway, petrified, before entering and attempting to exchange their banter, albeit in a forced manner. That’s great acting, because Silverman is a great actress. Too bad it’s immediately followed by Henry saying pedantic things, awkward portrayals of emotion, and the 46-year-old actress telling the young child that he’s the type of man she should be with and then kissing him on the lips. Oh my God, she’s the one that needs CPS called on her ass. The second nearly-good scene comes from young Jacob Tremblay, who plays a character I very much loathe, and yet has the only truly touching moment as he shares a heart-to-heart with his dying older brother. It’s enough to remind you of his average moments in Room (which are still great), but not enough to save this movie. Besides, that scene is immediately cut short by more scenes of people poorly acting and Henry looking at his x-rays and muttering something scientific. It takes about twenty minutes for this kid to die, and it shouldn’t have taken more than five. It was at this point the film became a D-.
However, if you think all of that is ridiculous, wait until I tell you about the third act, because this is where the film’s “message” comes from. This is where the film becomes a dramatic thriller about child abuse, except with those same twee indie beats that came before. I’m not going to say you can’t make a dramatic comedy surrounding child abuse (although best of luck pulling that off, pal). I’m just saying that you need to make sure your tone is balanced throughout, and that is not the case with this film. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a thriller, as with the training montage where Naomi Watts learns how to use a sniper rifle, a dramedy, like the scenes of Watts trying to buy the sniper rifle, or a straight up comedy, like the climactic scene at the talent show. OH MY GOD, THE TALENT SHOW! I had psychologically blocked that out. The talent show is pretty much everything wrong with this movie. It plays like a scene out of Wet Hot American Summer. Not only are we forced to sit through every kid in the school performing an act, most of which are terrible, like a terrible rap, a terrible performance of “Amazing Grace” (because of course), and a terrible breakdance, we have to watch the parents acting like they are watching the greatest performances of all time. If you have ever been to a middle school talent show, you’d know that most parents are supportive of the kids, but no one is actually wowed by the talent they’re seeing. This is nonsense, and they should feel bad for subjecting us to it. There’s one very nearly cool scene where the set-up of the crime is scored to a tap dance routine, and I would have been more impressed if I hadn’t seen it done before, and better. It all culminates in young Jacob Tremblay trying to perform a metaphorically bad magic trick (because of course), which has some dumb meaning behind it, doesn’t make any sense, and still the audience applauds like he’s David F*cking Copperfield. Oh, and if you’re wondering if Maddie Ziegler, star of Dance Moms and Sia’s muse, performs a cathartic ballet performance, the answer is “No sh*t Sherlock.” What’s worse, this all leads to the big dramatic moral of the movie, except the moral has nothing to do with anything that came before. Nope. Nothing. It was half-assedly introduced five minutes before the revelation in order to give it some context, but it literally means nothing overall. What’s worse, it seems to actively contradict the first two thirds. I guess it makes sense that they forget everything that came before, because the last third of this movie pretty much ignores the fact that a child has died. Sure, he has a presence over the last third of the movie, but it really doesn’t seem like anyone’s mourning the death of a kid at all. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t lift anyone up, and overall, you’re dumber for having sat through it.
I’m not sure how much I want to blame director Colin Trevorrow. Yes, he is to blame for this abomination, but he does his best to direct as competently as he can. This is just a dumb script, and my hatred is much more directed at writer Gregg Hurwitz. It’s sort of similar to last year’s Collateral Beauty, in which a decent director tries to elevate a god-awful script. However, unlike Collateral Beauty, Trevorrow never manages to rally his cast to try. Like, at all. Whereas Beauty features ok performances from Keira Knightley and Naomie Watts, no one is good in The Book of Henry, therefore making the former a better film. That’s right. This movie has made me say Collateral Beauty is better. That’s how much I hated this film. F*ck you, Gregg Hurwitz. I guess my point here is that no, Trevorrow’s direction on this film is not good in any way, shape, or form, but there’s nothing here that should have you worried about his upcoming project, Star Wars: Episode IX. He just needs to have a Silkwood Shower before he goes anywhere near that project.
As for the actors, it almost feels like they were participating in a competition to see which great actor could give the worst performance. Lieberher and Tremblay are two of our greatest child actors, and yet they feel ridiculously dumb as they try their best to act like human beings. I liked Tremblay more than Lieberher, if only because of his one decent scene, but my God, there were times when he was so obnoxious that when his character announced, “It should have been me!” I thought to myself, “Yes, you’re right.” Meanwhile, Watts gives the worst performance of her career, and she was in Movie 43. Her Susan is obnoxious, unlikable, a bad mother, and just overall not very good in this movie. Dean Norris essentially plays his role as Evil Hank from Breaking Bad, and no, that’s not as fun as it sounds. You pretty much know he’s a bad guy when he demands that Naomi Watts needs to “Make sure [she] rakes her leaves. They’re blowing into my yard, and ruining the order.” Man, what a sleazebag. He’s so two-dimensional I almost don’t feel like writing about him. Still, at least he has more to do than Silverman, who has one good scene and spends the rest of the movie doing a piss-poor impression of her own stand-up material. However, no one is wasted in the same way as Bobby Moynihan, who has about three scenes in the entire movie, never gets a funny line, and isn’t directed well enough to make his dramatic material shine. As shocking and as sad as it sounds, Maddie Ziegler may give the best performance in her first role ever, and that’s really only because she does an adequate (not good, adequate) job portraying an abuse victim. I almost believed her pain whenever she was onscreen. If only her line deliveries were as good.
Obviously, I loathed this movie. Every line is dumb and clichéd, the plot is ridiculously convoluted and nonsensical, and the script is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. At one point, I’ve forgotten/mentally blocked which, I jokingly said, “If they do [insert ridiculous-yet-stereotypical line/plot point here], I’m going to walk out.” They then did [insert ridiculous-yet-stereotypical line/plot point here], and I chose not to follow my own advice. I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. I’m trying to decide if this is a movie worthy of a “so-bad-it’s-good” rental, and I’m honestly not sure. It’s not quite as hilariously bad as, say, LOL or The Gallows, but it’s also not quite as unwatchable as Bucky Larson or Transformers: Age of Extinction. I guess, if push comes to shove, it’s worth seeing if you want to truly understand how awful it is (or if you want to hear the immortally bad line “We are not going to murder the police commissioner!”), but other than that, run as far away from this film as you can. You can bet that’s what the actors and director will be doing.