If it somehow seems unfair that so many people are piling on The Book Of Henry, I’m unashamed to say that not only is it completely fair, but it’s almost a civic duty to do so: the movie is absolutely awful. And I don’t say that with any glee. Most of the time, I’m angry when I have to give a bad review, because I genuinely love cinema, and it gives me no pleasure to rip a movie. Some other critics take great pains to explain how terrible certain movies can be, but they do it with a great deal of panache and irony that it strikes me that if they were not turning their poisoned pens on movies it would be – and probably is – something else. Me, I just get angry.
I was discussing with a friend the aspects of moviemaking that turn me off, and the number one culprit is bad writing, and bad writers. It’s offensive when high profile hacks such as Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci, Damon Lindelof, and Simon Kinberg make small fortunes from their over-plotted nonsense, but it’s no less bad when straight up bad writing gets turned into a feature. In the case of The Book of Henry, it’s novelist and comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz. I’ll say honestly that I’ve never read any of his work before, so I approached the movie as everyone else did, and ultimately emerged with much the same opinion, according to the old Tomatometer, which currently sits at 23%, 5% less, if you can believe it, than the gargantuan flop King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
Here’s the story, or at least the premise: Susan Carpenter, a single mother (Naomi Watts) works as a waitress in a diner while raising her two young sons, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, from Midnight Special) and Peter (Room’s Jacob Tremblay). For all this setup suggests, the Carpenters seem to have it pretty good financially – they live in a big, early 20th century home in a peaceful residential neighbourhood in the comfy, Rockwellesque town of Calvary, NY. It’s set mostly in fall, and it reawakened within me a longtime desire to live in that very same kind of Somewhere-On-The-Hudson town. The movie is full of old-upper state NY visual charm, and the Carpenter clan fit in very well. Susan is next-door-neighbour gorgeous (I think I described Naomi Watt’s Shut In character in similar terms), and her kids are cute as buttons. What’s not so great is that their neighbour is Glenn Sickleman (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris). Now Norris is a decent actor, but he’s become typecast as a heavy/bad guy, and it’s unfortunate here, because the movie shows its hand much too soon, unsubtly so. It’s a spectacularly dull choice, and indicative of the entire movie. Sickleman (sickle-man?) is single stepfather to Henry’s classroom crush Christina (Maddie Ziegler), a girl who is mostly sullen and sad. The major plot device of the movie is Henry himself. He’s a child of genius-level intelligence, but it doesn’t feel like real intelligence – it’s movie-intelligence. The kind that has kids trading in the stock market while building Rube Goldberg devices in impossibly-precious fortresses of solitude in the woods. By the time I became used to Henry in the movie, it was clear to me that I was watching a poor writer’s idea of a hugely intelligent kid, not a realistic attempt to create one. Oh, did I say that Henry is not only precocious to the point of annoying, he’s also annoyingly condescending to his mother, who does nothing but heap praise upon him at every opportunity. In short, Hurwitz has made his main protagonist a dick.
I won’t spoil the plot, but around the halfway mark, the movie finally gets around to the start of the plot. Prior to this, much more time than is necessary is dedicated to showing us the Carpenters in all their normalcy. For a super genius like Henry, his arc is as banal as everyone else’s. Not only does his mother fail to exploit his gift (even for good), he seems mostly content to remain in the backwater of what looks like 8th grade. But it’s because of his maturity and insight that he’s able to determine Christina is the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of villainous-looking Glenn. Here’s where the movie started to smell funny to me. At no point in the movie prior to the third act – NO POINT – is there any proof WHATSOEVER that Christina is actually being abused. This is especially important, given what the movie morphs into after the midpoint. I kept waiting for something to show me why I should be against Glenn, other than the fact he looks and acts shady. I don’t know if there was meant to be misdirection here, because to me, Glenn looks like a grumpy neighbour, but he also sits in the dark, alone, drinking. Now, that could mean the guy’s a nut, but in real life terms, it could also be seen as a man whose spiraled into depression, having to raise a teenage girl without her mother. Nope, as the movie progresses, it’s pretty clear that Hurwitz can only paint with broad brushes – and I mean of the wall-painting variety.
As unsophisticated as this is, though, the movie goes well and truly off the deep end in depressingly ludicrous fashion. Following an event which mostly come out of nowhere, the movie plunges into a bizarre revenge/murder/rescue plot that forces pretty blonde neighbour Susan to transform into a deadly, black-dressed, stone cold assassin. I am not making this shit up. I could stop right here, but there is so much more than this that’s the product of some of the worst screenwriting I’ve sat through in years. Susan’s transformation is due to a recording made by Henry. It’s an instructional recording, but what’s bad about it is that the montage of scenes of which this is the central part is so contrived that Susan is able to interact with Henry as if he was right with her, meaning that his recording – made months prior – not only anticipates EXACTLY what she is doing, but also at times what she says – all so we can get a cutesy back and forth dialogue. I can’t adequately convey how unbelievably stupid this conceit is. It’s something that even a rank amateur high schooler would realize is bad. How Hurwitz did not see this is utterly beyond my comprehension.
One of the other horrible things about this movie is not specifically a problem with the plot, but of character, meant in the sense of moral fiber. It deals with the relationship between Susan and Peter, the younger son. Peter is the cherub-like innocent. He’s small, gets picked on at school, has no outstanding traits like his brother, whom he worships, and he seems like a sweet kid, unlike the Mini Sheldon Cooper that is Henry. When events transpire to reduce the Carpenter family to Susan and Peter, the movie suffers from the same thoughtlessness as Interstellar did, where the main child is so obviously the beloved child, and the writing does very little to address the almost complete lack of parental love for the other. Despite Susan’s numerous vocalizations of how much she loves Peter, plot points speak louder than words. At a time when Peter REALLY needs his mother, Susan spends all of her time scheming to free Christina of the (contextually unproven) abuse she is suffering. Two scenes spring to mind. One where Susan tracks Peter down to the overdesigned fort in the woods where he is moping over the situation, but instead of grabbing him in her arms, she exits the scene as quickly as she enters it, with no normal human maternal warmth. In another scene drawing close to the climax of Act 2, she’s completely unaware what Peter plans to do for the oft-discussed talent show, which forms the backdrop to Act 3. What has she been doing off camera all these nights when Peter has been researching and practicing his act? The movie says absolutely nothing about why Susan is reacting like this because she’s a character in a badly-written, plot-driven movie, nothing more than that.
As I watched this, I struggled badly with how I was going to review it, because the movie made me angry. I loathe incompetence in writing, and Hurwitz brought nothing to the table other than that. However, the movie is competently directed by Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, and the movie just flat out looks gorgeous, thanks to John Schwartzman’s cinematography. In terms of acting, Norris is wooden and Lieberher is kind of one-note, not as much to do with the writing and direction, I think. Like Shut In, Watts’ cute neighbour role is believable and appealing, and even when her character shifts waaaaay too far tonally, I still liked her performance just fine. She can’t do anything about the shitty writing, but made the best of it, I thought.
I really want to give this a zero out of five, but instead, the other decent elements force me to a
© ANDREW HOPE, 2017