If you’re reasonably involved on Film Twitter, you’ve probably noticed a bunch of critics freaking the fuck out about The Book of Henry, the latest work by director Colin Trevorrow, which has already garnered comparisons to The Room and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie and Radio Flyer from legit luminaries in the field.
If you’re wondering where you might have heard of Colin Trevorrow, you may know his name from his previous film, Jurassic World, or from his next film, Star Wars: Episode IX. He was heavily recommended to Steven Spielberg by Brad Bird for the Jurassic World helm, and he’s been coasting ever since. This is his passion project, the one thing that he’s wanted to bring to screen in between his franchise obligations, the one thing he wants to use his now-massive voice to elevate.
And it is just terrible.
The Book of Henry is a truly astonishing piece of cinema: A wacky-as-fuck family drama that’s also a light comedy that’s also a thriller that’s also an exploration of grief that’s also a movie about an assassin in training. Yeah, you read that right. The movie is really fucking difficult to describe, and it’s even harder to write about. It’s just so wrong-headed and dumb that it manages to bury much of its ridiculousness under a thick layer of boring until the third act, when everything just goes straight up balls-to-the-wall crazy and Naomi Watts starts pointing a sniper rifle at people. Yeah, that’s also right.
Basically, The Book of Henry is like an episode of The Simpsons if Marge left Homer (Naomi Watts) because he was too much of an idiot, and Lisa (Jacob Lieberher) has to balance the checkbook and do everything for her father because he’s dumb as hell, and Bart (Jacob Tremblay) is just kind of there, hanging in the background, I guess. Also, imagine that all of these characters were stripped of each personality attributes that make them interesting and iconic characters. Oh, and then she discovers that Ned Flanders is molesting his kids, and because she likes Rod and Todd (Maddie Ziegler), decides to manipulate everyone around her into murdering Ned Flanders (Dean Norris). And then she disappears for the rest of the film, and Homer and Bart learn how to be assassins and try to plot the perfect murder, based off of the book that she left behind. This is basically what happens over the course of the film. Sure, the characters have names and their sexes are different and whatever, but good god is it a silly movie. It’s just so weird that I have to abstract it in order to describe the tone and plot in a way that people can understand it.
The actors aren’t really at fault here. Watts plays her part with the same kind of wide-eyed earnestness that defined her work with David Lynch, and a scene in which she threatens the manager of a gun store in order to get him to sell her a sniper rifle that’s illegal for her to own rings slightly ironic now that we’ve seen Jane-Y Jones intimidate thugs on Twin Peaks recently. This character lacks all of that one’s competency: She’s a dumbass slacker, who lets her genius 11 year old do her taxes while she kills members of the Locust horde in Gears of War (and watching Naomi Watts fumble around with a video game controller awkwardly is a delight). Occasionally she works in spite of the film’s machinations, and there’s a beautiful warmth that comes across in her character when she interacts with her children, though that easy charm is easily rendered whenever Henry opens his mouth to throw in a precocious comment. She’s oftentimes unintentionally hilarious, undoubtedly because Trevorrow steers her in so many different directions and because her character is dumb as hell for much of the runtime and infantilized in a similar way as your average sitcom dad. Without Henry in her life, she’d be totally lost; unable to balance her checkbook or to say no to drinks with her alcoholic best friend (Sarah Silverman), and she’d definitely be unfit to raise two children on her own. Her personal growth over the film rings totally false and is horribly emotionally manipulative, and trust me, when you see her finally raise that rifle and find Dean Norris in her sights and everything that comes after it, you’ll just start to laugh.
Trembley, the most believable member of the cast precisely because he actually is a goddamn child, is really just great here, and my instinct here is to commend him for his work, and not Trevorrow’s direction. He’s got a few massively effective scenes with his older brother, ranging from the blissfully funny to the darkly emotional, and plays well off of Watts, who approximates something realistic when she’s forced to interact with him alone. There’s not a false note in his performance, and the painfully stupid story avoids him in the action entirely, which might be the reason that he’s so good here. Ziegler is also good in her role, though she’s shuffled out of the line of sight pretty early on in order for the film to go down it’s weird path. That’s kind of odd in and of itself, especially given that the film’s publicity emphasizes the fact that our boy genius Henry has a crush on her, which is why he’s going to these lengths to save her. It comes across as less of a romantic interest in her than as an object in a plan for a really bizarre sacrifice play, like something out of Logan but stripped of the gravitas. Before we go any further, let me make this absolutely crystal clear: The Book of Henry is the most egregiously manipulative when it deals with the abuse of children, and it can get occasionally nauseating; not from any on-screen content, but from how bizarrely flippant it is about something that really hurts a ton of people.
Sadly, Jacob Lieberher, playing the titular Henry, is utterly and totally wasted here, which is a shame given how good he was in another film about a special child, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. Henry speaks in a flat monotone for much of the film, and the emotionlessness of the character starts to take its toll on his performance early on. He’s asked to read precocious dialogue without any hints of life or emotion behind it, because inferring that there’s a real person inside of this magical dream child would burst the illusion. Even worse, he’s given a lot of “knowing” quips that are often played for laughs, but more of less come across as him just being kind of a dick to lots of the people around him, and nobody seems to give him any reprimand for his shitty behavior. The machinations of his arc are so painfully tasteless anyways that I guess the movie itself gives him his comeuppance by the time the credits start to roll. His plan to free the neighbor girl from the clutches of Hank from Breaking Bad slowly unfurls into something that feels less like a child’s moral absolutism and more like a little psychopath’s guide to committing the perfect crime. Leopold and Loeb, meet Henry.
No, this catastrophic screw up belongs to two individuals, Trevorrow and writer Gregg Hurwitz, the latter who had this idea when he was 24 years old and sat on it through a decently successful career as a novelist and a screenwriter and didn’t learn from any of that experience that this was just a terrible idea. It’s just atrociously structured, flipping tones left and right until everything’s in a soupy miasma of tone-deaf humor and utterly bleak sadness, which makes this difficult to watch as something “just 4 laffs.” That comes from the second act twist, which the press materials have asked critics to preserve and the advertising has hidden well. Character motivations don’t make any sense, the timeline doesn’t make any sense, and the logistics of how people move from scene to scene are schizophrenic and odd. Seriously, there are moments in this film where you may doubt your own sanity if you’re anything approaching an attentive viewer. Plot threads are set up and abandoned, and coincidences make up a great deal of the third-act action, which is where the ironic laughter truly comes from, and boy, is it ugly to watch play out. You’ll want to laugh your ass off, but you’ll see people crying around you and feel terrible about it.
At this point, it’s safe to say that Trevorrow’s career as a director gives new credence to that old meme about people wishing they had the confidence of a mediocre white man. He has perpetually failed upwards: Safety Not Guaranteed took a wonderfully simple internet joke and spun 90 minutes of “alright” out of it, and benefitted from that potent combination of Park City hype and Sundance hangovers that produces your mediocre arthouse slotting in the summer.
Jurassic World made a boatload of money, but that’s what happens when a whole generation is raised on a franchise and grows up — of course people are going to want that small nostalgia hit, especially if it’s as derivative and empty as that movie is. You’re going to get an audience anyways, and people are just going to be glad that there’s a bunch of dinosaurs fighting on a screen in the air-conditioning.
And finally, Book of Henry presents his bland and empty style for the world to see: The cinematography is boring, the editing is flat and lifeless, and god help him if he hadn’t had found some devoted and talented actors to read Horowitz’ trip. It’s easily the worst film ever made by a director of a Star Wars film (yeah, that includes you, Robocop 2) and is just astonishing in its stupidity. I would tell you that The Book of Henry is worth a viewing simply for the batshit insanity on display throughout the film, but then you’d go to it and either get thrown out or write my editor and whine to him that I didn’t tell you how boring it was in advance.
But this is a disaster for Trevorrow, a disaster for Lucasfilm, and a disaster for anybody who decides to bring their kids to it or goes in without knowing what goes on in the plot. So enjoy Episode VIII while it lasts, people. The black hole comes to consume all. The Book of Henry is just its herald.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.