“The Book of Henry” is, without a doubt, the strangest movie of the year. It’s based on an original screenplay and not a book, because this story, in print, never would’ve gotten a publisher. This is a film that mixes genres: drama, family dynamics, light comedy, suspense, action (and a few I can’t mention). Last year’s “The Accountant” included all of those, and did a brilliant job melding them together into a coherent, effective movie.
Due to its scattered tone and off-kilter execution, “The Book of Henry” can’t pull-off that same trick. The Focus Features marketing department does get major props for one thing. Current movie trailers are giving away way too much of a film’s plot – but not in the case of “The Book of Henry”. The previews, commercials and clips don’t even hint at some of the core plot elements and “twists”.
As a courtesy to those interested in seeing “The Book of Henry”, I can’t really write about much of what happens following the first half-hour. I’m also advising against seeing “The Book of Henry”, unless you’d simply like to experience one of the strangest (that word again) cinematic events in recent movie history.
I like Naomi Watts. In the right roles (such as in “The Impossible” and “While We’re Young”), she’s an engaging on-screen female lead. But when the fit isn’t right (i.e. playing a Russian “lady of the night” in “St. Vincent”, complete with awful accent), it’s so not right.
As inept, divorced mother Susan Carpenter in “The Book of Henry”, Watts had her work cut out for her, and the results are uneven at best. Early on we see Carpenter unable to handle day-to-day life with her two kids. She’s also struggling with her waitress duties at the small-town diner. She gets drunk with co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman). She plays “Call of Duty” on the living room TV, while her eldest son, 11-year-old Henry, runs the house – taking care of all the finances and his younger brother Peter.
Henry is a genius. But practically every line of dialogue delivered by Jaeden Lieberher (who co-starred with Watts in “St. Vincent”) is either correcting someone or saying something profound, including in one of the hokiest movie classroom presentation speeches I’ve ever heard. Peter (“Room”‘s Jacob Tremblay) is just your average elementary school kid and their brotherly love is genuine. But alone Henry is way too annoying to root for. When your title character is unintentionally this unlikable you’ve got a problem.
Even when “The Book of Henry” takes a surprising turn (the term “straight out of left field” definitely applies), Henry remains obnoxious and completely unrealistic. Eventually, we get to more of what the trailers for the film tease. There’s something not right going on between the girl next door and her stepfather. This subject matter is a little too adult for a PG-13 movie. However, it’s handled in an appropriately vague, delicate manner.
With this script, screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz (of the short-lived ABC series “V”) decided to venture down the oddest avenues possible. The result is a film that travels to the land of unbelievable fairly quickly and never, for a minute, returns to a sense of reality. Nothing feels quite right. Experiencing “The Book of Henry” is both exhausting and fascinating. The material goes from far-fetched to bizarre, then from outlandish to ridiculous and incomprehensible, and finally settles on just plain silly. If your reaction walking out of the theater after the hasty and contrived conclusion isn’t something similar to “What the Hell was that?”, then you just watched a different movie.
Watts tries her hardest to insert emotion into Susan. But because of the strange direction the character is forced to go, the attempts fall short. Lee Pace (“The Hobbit”) is fine as an appropriately understated doctor. Bobby Moynihan, recently departed from “SNL”, has a very small role as Susan’s diner boss.
This is director Colin Trevorrow’s follow-up to the juggernaut “Jurassic World”. He co-wrote the upcoming “Jurassic” sequel, and is currently in the planning stages of directing… “Star Wars: Episode IX”. But until that opens in 2019, Trevorrow won’t be referred to as “The guy who directed ‘Jurassic World’ – one of the biggest movies of all-time”, but rather as “That guy who directed ‘The Book of Henry’ – one of the oddest movies of all-time”.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Book of Henry” gets a D.
Running Time: 105 min.