The Book of Henry (2017)

06/21/2017  By  Martin R. Schneider     No comments

Film critics are often prone to hyperbole and exaggeration. It comes with the territory, it’s par for the course.

So please, dear readers, understand how completely serious I am when I say this: The Book of Henry contains a unique blend of incompetence and self-importance the likes of which have only been seen in films like Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Room.

But while The Room is at least an interesting watch because it appeared out of nowhere fronted by an attention-grabbing space alien in a Glenn Danzig mask using money he apparently got from the D.B. Cooper heist, The Book of Henry doesn’t even have that going for it. It’s simply a poorly conceived film on all possible levels, with incoherent direction and an incredibly sloppy script which relies on a million contrivances and incompetent characters. But a bad movie is one thing – a bad movie which is unmistakably convinced of its depth and cleverness is another thing altogether.

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Hmmm… someone somewhere needs a little kid to be an insufferable prick.

To break down everything in this film requires understanding the inept script, so I’m going to be spoiler-heavy from here on out. This film is a veritable Megazord of bad writing, the ultimate sum of several different stories, none of which would be good on their own. We’re introduced to Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher), a genius-level 11-year-old whose hobbies include building complex Rube Goldberg devices, playing the stock market, and nagging/belittling his incompetent single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Many films and TV shows like to play with the “child is the real adult” trope as though it was funny and not incredibly developmentally stunted, but Book of Henry is the most obnoxious about it. We’re subjected to multiple scenes of Henry conducting financial business while his mom plays Call of Duty, or moments where she can’t make a simple decision without consulting Henry first. These moments are treated with varying levels of humor, and the whole thing feels gross and off-putting.

Lest you believe this is an entire film about Naomi Watts’ inappropriate parenting, there actually is some plot movement when Henry witnesses Christina (Maddie Zeigler) the girl next door, being molested by her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the commissioner of police. Well, more specifically, Henry witnesses Christina looking sad in her bedroom, then witnesses Glenn get out of a chair downstairs. The music grows intense, and  there’s a cutaway, and in the very next scene, Henry is screaming to his principal about Christina’s bruises, ER visits, school absences, and poor grades, none of which the movie has bothered to mention before. (But we did see Christina be too sad to eat a doughnut, so that’s something.) The principal refuses to make any statement without evidence, and since the movie has given us literally none of that, she’s basically right. This is one of the ways that the movie fails to make a child molester into a convincing villain, which is an almost impressive feat.

Left with no recourse (because the film infers that the head of Child Protective Services is Glenn’s brother, pulling a Joe Paterno to cover up the abuse), Henry decides to take matters into his own hands. For the next chunk of movie, he’s sneaking into gun shops, checking out crime scene books, and essentially behaving in the manner you’d expect from a school shooter. Henry apparently teaches himself everything he’d need to murder his next-door neighbor.

And then he dies.

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No, seriously. Henry dies halfway through this movie. He has a seizure, gets diagnosed with a brain tumor, spends like 25 minutes of the movie in the hospital, and then dies. Surprise, we’re completely switching narratives now, turns out Henry’s mom is the main character. Still grieving the loss of her son, Susan is given Henry’s guidebook by her other son Peter who, by the way, exists. Convinced and manipulated by Henry from beyond the grave, Susan takes up the mantle of Glenn-killer, following the instructions and recordings left behind by Henry. Oh, and for some reason the doctor who operated on Henry (Lee Pace) hangs around for just a completely inappropriate amount of time.

There are no characters in The Book of Henry, there are only ideas and representations.

You’ll know exactly which ideas each character represents because they’ll flat-out say it in every line of dialogue. The genius-child idea is only clever or inventive when that character is forced to still have childhood issues and anxieties. Henry is not written as a smart child, he’s written as Dr. House occupying a preteen body. This means he’s actually a total prick, neither precocious nor cute as the film seems convinced he is. Similarly, it is convinced that “Henry is smart” is a satisfying-enough handwave to solve anything, including how Henry can apparently learn to be an expert marksman capable of training others despite never touching a gun.

I’m convinced that Henry isn’t actually smart, he just lives in a universe where everyone else is mind-bogglingly stupid. From the child molester/police commissioner who several times leaves his blinds open while committing his crime, to the school principal who is motivated to action by a sad ballet dance, to Henry’s mother who can’t figure out the meaning of the term “direct deposit” on her own. At one point Henry manages to buy a car despite being 11 years old, I’m assuming because of a deleted scene where the auto dealership falls for the old “two kids in a trenchcoat” bit.

“Yeah, I get like eight lines in this movie.”

There’s also a strange underlying misogyny to Susan’s helplessness; as though she’s useless without a man/prepubescent man-boy literally whispering instructions in her ear. Christina, the film’s molestation victim and damsel-in-distress, is given about eight lines – none of which are her saying “yes, I am being molested and you should kill my stepfather.” In fact, most of her role in this film is being sad and pushing away pastry. Her feelings here are an afterthought, her victimhood is merely a means to an end in order to further demonstrate how brilliant and self-sacrificing Henry is.

It’s actually impressive how this film manages to get the tone wrong for the content in every single scene. The murder-plans switch from being treated as a light gag to heavy crime-planning and back. The actual assassination attempt is bookmarked and intercut by a children’s talent show featuring a lisping child rapping. The film’s villain is completely unaware of the plot against him until the last scenes, then resolves the issue on behalf of everyone – by committing suicide. (Smash cut to Henry’s brother attempting a fun and whimsical magic trick!) These are just a few examples, the entire film causes so much tonal whiplash that eventually they all cancel each other out, leaving an atonal dung heap.

The Book of Henry is an arrogant film.

It feels written and directed by men with little understanding of human behavior; men who care more about being technically correct than about being decent. Like the titular character, the film is convinced it is much smarter and more charming than it actually is. As a result, both Henry and this film fail to make any real connection to other people, despite constantly reassuring us and insisting that we should care about it. Rarely does a film come along that reeks of overcompensation as much as this one does, leaving the rest of us to wonder why no one stepped in to say “Dude, this is a bit much, don’t you think?”

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About Martin R. Schneider

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Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.

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