Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are both connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they discuss a bad movie in the form of letters to one another. Be wary of spoilers.
Where do I even begin with this perplexing collage of a film? Surely The Book of Henry must go down in history as one of the most ignominious and sudden endings to what was regarded as a promising career. The baggage surrounding the movie and its fallout are so spectacular that I found myself in a difficult position as I was watching it, since I try to leave that stuff out of my estimation of a movie while it is screening. In this case, though, every time something made me cringe or pronounce aloud to my empty apartment “That did NOT just happen!” just served to hammer home to me that this is the movie that got director Colin Trevorrow fired from Star Wars.
For the benefit of our readers and just to spell it all out so I can see how ridiculous it all looks on the page, here’s the plot such as it is: An 11-year-old named Henry is so absurdly smart that he games the stock market and manages all the family finances and even manages to keep his kid brother entertained as his restaurant server (and Gears of War enthusiast?!) mother follows his every edict. Next door is a girl in his class at school whose father abuses her. It looks as if Henry will use his outstanding intelligence to find some sneaky way to rescue the girl next door—and then he gets a brain tumor and promptly dies. This happens a good two thirds into the runtime, or at least felt like it did. Henry’s bereaved mother discovers a notebook of Henry’s, which she reads with Henry’s distraught younger brother right there next to her. In it, he lays out an elaborate scheme to have the abusive next door neighbor killed. (This is necessary because he is a police commissioner and his brother is the child services caseworker and everybody says they won’t investigate. We know his brother is the child protective services caseworker because his brother’s name is on the freaking informational pamphlet Henry finds just like it never is in real life, good lord.)
Henry’s brain, unable to contain a metric ton of precociousness any longer, explodes in a shower of gore that covers onlookers in all directions.
Henry’s mother even is gifted a tape of Henry, with pretty much cracker-jack timing, talking her through each step of his retribution plot. Just as she’s about to go through with killing the guy with a sniper rifle, she decides, amazingly, to think for herself and merely exposes the rapist police commissioner. Which Henry could have done at any time.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I want to bring up three issues I saw as the most noteworthy now that we view the film with the benefit of some measure of hindsight. First, we’ve got to talk about the cast.
I know that if you get handed a major blockbuster like Jurassic World and it doesn’t stink up the box office, you’re going to get access to some A-list talent. But a lot of really important people got dragged through the muck for this feature, and in completely thankless roles. Naomi Watts comes off as the world’s dumbest and most oblivious mother—a woman so helpless she won’t get her checks direct deposited without the say-so of an 11-year-old. Bobby Moynihan and Sarah Silverman (SARAH. SILVERMAN.) both do as much as they can with a script that gives them absolutely nothing to work with. Dean Norris has to turn in a performance as a mean old rapist of a police commissioner, a villain with just about zero dimensions to his character. And a pre-It Jaeden Lieberher as Henry is trying to convey precocious adorable-ness, righteous frustration and also the cold calculation of basically a budding serial killer, all which point to the bizarre tonal shifts this script calls for.
Which I guess brings me to my specific bafflement with the script. Not the PLOT, which is gorgon-shit enough on its own, but the individual lines of dialogue. There isn’t a natural or relatable line to be had in this whole thing. Everything comes off as written by a 14-year-old. A cavalcade of tiny details that are wrong and off all add up to create an impression of a movie that doesn’t know how real people live or how things like school, work, child abuse, gun sales, or literally anything really works. It’s ironic, since Trevorrow was assigned to Star Wars Episode IX and really, this is some classic, Episode I-appropriate tin-eared dialogue.
And THAT brings me to my third point, which is that it’s incredible how entirely the failure of this movie seems to have fallen entirely on Trevorrow. Everybody in the cast seems mostly to have emerged unscathed—even Lieberher, who must have had everything to lose on this one, bounced right back by selling audiences hard in It, which instantly made him an important part of one of the year’s most surprising box office and critical successes.
I suppose I’d like to ask you: What jumped out at you about this train wreck? And what do you make of such a meteoric rise (and really, fall) for this director? What’s it saying about the future of bad movies like this sad specimen, if we’re promoting guys like Trevorrow to King of Franchises?
After watching The Book of Henry, I believe the entire thesis of my response can be ably summed up in a single sentence: Who the hell was this movie supposed to be for, exactly?
No really—who is the intended audience? Because I have no freaking idea. The Book of Henry is attempting to be so many different things at once, careening from genre to genre so spastically that it never gives you time enough to adjust. Every time you attempt to reframe your point of reference to the style of film it’s become, it morphs into a DIFFERENT STYLE OF FILM and you start all over again.
Our story begins looking like some kind of lighthearted school dramedy about a supergenius boy supporting his entire family; especially his load of a mother, who sits on the couch playing videogames because “plays videogames” was the most irresponsible thing the screenwriter could imagine a parent doing. Then it suddenly becomes a story about abuse, but it still seems plucky enough—this kid is going to use his wits to outsmart that mean ol’ neighbor and set everything to right!
And then the kid dies.
Holy shit, man. That whole brain tumor business comes barreling at us out of nowhere, and suddenly the film isn’t about a precocious boy; it’s a disease-of-the-week after school special. The 10 minutes or so of the film where Henry is in the hospital is some of the darkest, most soul-crushingly bleak stuff I’ve seen in any film in recent memory. Props again to Mom, who failed to notice that her son suffers from blinding headaches and has a bottle of random pills sitting next to his bed. I assume she just looks at his pill bottle and figures, “Eh, he knows what he’s doing,” the same way she allows him to run every aspect of her life for her. I believe the term for this is “parentified child,” by the way. Mom then meets a dreamy doctor played by Lee Pace, and for about 120 seconds it appears that the movie has become a romance.
But nevermind that shit! Because Henry left detailed instructions on how his act of premeditated murder is to be carried out, so now the film is a revenge thriller! Or maybe a black comedy? So help me, I’m honestly not sure, but it certainly seems comedic for at least a minute when the kid brother announces, “I think Henry wants us to kill Glenn!”
Manual to a murder.
Which leads us to that tape you mentioned, which I have some serious issues with. We are told:
1. That Henry is unaware there’s something physically wrong with him, despite the fact that he’s a genius and has a great wealth of knowledge about his own condition, chalking his headaches up to “stress,” and
2. That Mom recovers said tape from the safe in the basement of their home, where it has been left for her by Henry.
So to ask the obvious question: When the hell did he record this tape, and how did it end up there? In order for the tape to get into the safe in their house, Henry would have needed to place it there before being taken to the hospital, but he didn’t even know anything was wrong with himself before being taken to said hospital. Before being stricken with illness, he was planning on carrying out the murder himself, so why is there a tape leaving detailed instructions for how Mom should do it, to be listened to in the event of his death, when he had no idea that he was going to die? It doesn’t make sense, Ken. It does not make sense. This is one of the strangest scripts I’ve ever encountered.
As for the actors you mentioned, I am perplexed as to why Colin Trevorrow would even have sought out the likes of Sarah Silverman or Bobby Moynihan in the first place. Why are there so many comedians in this movie, Ken? This is a movie about child rape and child illness and potential vengeance killings. Did Silverman and Moynihan and Lee Pace even have any idea of what the movie was about, outside of their scenes? Because if you cut together ONLY the scenes where those three appear, you’d think this movie was Jerry Maguire or something. And I can safely say that it is not.
It’s really difficult to predict what exactly is going to happen for the career of Trevorrow, going forward. He doesn’t seem to have anything on his directorial docket, but he is executive producing the Jurassic World sequel. It seems to me that even after being removed from Star Wars, he’ll still probably have no trouble getting another decently budgeted film to direct if he wants it—just not a huge tentpole like Star Wars again.
Speaking of guys with similar career arcs, perhaps we should watch Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four next?
You make perhaps the best point about this film, asking for whom it was made. I think the answer is that it’s basically just for Colin Trevorrow, in much the same way my 279-page novella about an amnesiac super spy whose trick is that his gun is invisible, written when I was around 14 or 15, will never be appreciated by anybody save myself. I daresay you would be just as hard-pressed to pin down the intended tone. Sadly, I never did secure Hollywood studio funding to adapt my vision to the silver screen.
For me, the huge leaps of impossibility here—the ludicrous degree of preparation Henry must presumably have undertaken after finding out he was about to die from inoperable brain cancer almost don’t have time to register because the more mundane risible bullshit in this screenplay simply crowds out my ability to fail to suspend my disbelief long before we hit the out-of-nowhere twist: The boy who remains in lame public school when he should be helping to research quantum computing, the laughable exposition showing how seemingly unassailable is the villain, the thought that we the audience would ever accept Naomi Watts as the nincompoop Trevorrow paints her as in this dumb script.
Naomi Watts takes aim to kill a man with a high-powered rifle, exactly as you’d expect in a movie about the adventures of a precocious child genius.
I also hesitate to ever suggest ways in which one might fix messes like this (outside of my extensive Star Wars prequel trilogy fan fiction, I guess), but several easy solutions just jump out at me here. Starting en medias res with Watts carrying through on the directive from the beginning and memories of her son are told in flashback would at least keep the film tonally true to itself. Focusing more on the symbolism of the Rube Goldberg that Henry has built—on the fact he sees the world as a series of utterly predictable actions and reactions when people and life are more complicated than that—would be thematically resonant. It would at least make the batshit script go down easier.
As for Trevorrow, well, I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of him, despite all of this. Maybe he’ll stage the first of many comebacks in the year or so ahead.
I had one last point I want to leave to you here, and that’s the fact the production values on the turkey just seem direct-to-DVD quality. Is it just me, or does the Lifetime-piano score for the cutesy parts just seem composed and played by the first starving grad student who wandered by the lot?
Looking back on the experience, I’m still having trouble reconciling that certain scenes in The Book of Henry, such as the title character mounting a whimsical little playlet for his kid brother, are in the same film as other scenes, such as the mother looking on through a window while the neighbor girl is being raped. How could these things share space in the same movie?
Dean Norris, thinking something along the lines of “I’m sure this will be at least as good as Breaking Bad, right?”
My lasting confusion goes to prove what you wrote—the only way this movie could have somehow pulled itself together would have been to choose a tonally consistent viewpoint and then stick to it. It’s either inspiring and the kind of thing you’d allow a child to watch, or it’s an R-rated thriller for parents about abuse and a vengeful mother. There’s no room for something in between, because when you try to make a movie that way, you end up with The Book of Henry.
I honestly don’t want to overtax my brain trying to think about this film anymore, especially when I could be considering the implications of an amnesiac super spy with an invisible gun. So like … does he know why he has an invisible gun? Does he remember how to use his invisible gun? Is it loaded with invisible bullets? Does it still make loud bangs and muzzle flashes?
Hopefully we’ll have time to get into all those answers in the next iteration of this column.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and Kenneth Lowe is a regular Paste Movies contributor. You can follow Jim on Twitter. You can also hound Ken to participate in the Twitterverse at some future date, if that’s the kind of thing you think is a worthwhile use of your time.