(SPOILERS) How did the Golden Razzies miss this one? Regarding Henry is the kind of wretched miscalculation that kills careers, but somehow screenwriter JJ Abrams (a tender twenty-five at the time, and his first solo credit) rebounded unscathed – even his cameo unaccountably did him no damage – although it would be the end of the decade before he was really making inroads, and on TV. Perhaps because the prime culprit, the one who comes out with half-a-dozen eggs on his face, is hubristic star Harrison Ford, believing he could have a slice of the disability pie that was, during that period, paying off handsomely for so many other famous actors and seeing them reap awards glory.
You can trace Ford’s duff eye for material back to this point, if you so choose, both commercially and critically. He made some unlikely decisions during the 80s that didn’t hit the jackpot (Frantic, The Mosquito Coast) but that was okay as they were in the service of artistic aspiration. By the time the 90s dawned, he was fully invested in Brand Harrison, so when Regarding Henry went belly up, he made possibly the most damaging choice of his career, despite its commercial success; he signed up to play Jack Ryan, the most vanilla, bland, already-tested (by Alec Baldwin) franchise protagonist available. Aside from no-brainer Richard Kimble (precision-packaged to highlight the actor’s patented ennobled self-righteousness), you’ll be hard-pressed to find a strong role in a strong film for the rest of that decade (don’t get me wrong, his two Ryan movies are serviceable entertainments, but neither is anything more than the most basic formula filmmaking designed to give the star his guaranteed summer hit).
But you can see, in principle, why Ford might have thought Henry Turner was a smart pick. If those aforementioned roles in Frantic – as the passive, reactive lead; you couldn’t really call Richard Walker a hero – and The Mosquito Coast – Allie Fox’s wilfully manipulative, dictatorial, deluded patriarch – diverged from the movie-star titan parts he’d become famous for and so met with an unreceptive audience, he had scored in the lightweight dramedy Working Girl as the romantic support, and further shown his ability to take the audience beyond the expected with his on-trial-for-murder lawyer in Presumed Innocent (in some ways, a capper to his hot streak). Why not see if they’d follow him where they followed Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise and Robert De Niro, into the world of disabilities, one that called upon all the serious acting ticks and quirks in their arsenals and paid off in each of them being at least nominated for the top acting awards?
Tropic Thunder, of course, made much humorous capital over the degree to which such performances would meet with peer approval and conversely where they might potentially be seen as going too far (or “full retard”); arguably, Ford’s recuperating, retrograde amnesiac Henry skirts dangerously close at times, reduced as he is to a drooling vacant man-child. Ford is flat-out terrible here. Absolutely lousy. I’ll forgive the actor a lot based on his 70s and 80s work, even his latter-day somnabulance/stonedness, but Henry Turner is beyond the pale.
Harrison looking pensive is generally bad enough at the best of times, but for a whole movie? The scenes of his rehabilitation, aided by Bill Nunn’s whacky, inspirational embodiment of the “Magical Negro” trope, are torturous and interminable. Robert Hays and his drinking problem in Airplane! continually flashed before my eyes as Henry, his memory gone and his motor functions shot, is taught shapes with wooden blocks (“Now, can you pick the circle?”) Later, having expressed his reluctance to leave the hospital and Bill, he changes his mind, announcing with infantile excitement “I remember grey carpet!”
Everything that ensues, from forming a relationship with the daughter (Mikki Allen) he previously shunned (she teaches him the alphabet, bless her), to getting on with the maid (Robin Bartlett – “What do I do when I’m not working?” he asks; “You’re always working” she replies. You couldn’t make these lines up. Unless you were JJ). That’s not the end of it. There’s more, and it gets worse. Henry goes out and gorges himself on hotdogs, buys a puppy, visits a porn cinema, and his wife Sarah (Anette Bening in a thankless part, her first big one to arrive on screens since being Oscar nominated for The Grifters and representing a small window between that and becoming Mrs Beatty) seduces her overgrown child husband in a scene that uncomfortably conjures queasy memories of Big (a role Ford had passed on and regretted). He also rights his lawyerly wrongs, now he is the picture of a naïve moral compass.
At a party, Henry and Sarah overhear a friend uttering “Christ, one minute you’re an attorney, the next, you’re an imbecile”, which could have been the poster tagline. You can tell evil Henry was really evil, because wife and daughter much prefer idiot Henry. Who doesn’t like his old self’s clothes, or eggs, or being a lawyer. But “I want us to be a family” and he goes on to prove it by showing up at school assembly to take his daughter away (clearly much too much of an idiot to realise how insanely embarrassing it would be, and scarring to her already fragile emotional development).
Abrams’ facility for manufactured dramatic plot progression is alive and well at these formative career stages, as he contrives to manufacture a third-act estrangement from Sarah, who had an affair with Henry’s partner Bruce Altman; it’s okay, though, as everyone’s equally culpable and Henry’s memories of Ritz related to the hotel where he was shagging Rebecca Miller twice a week, notthe crackers (which, genuinely hilariously, he portrays in a still-life that he then hangs in his office). Nichols doesn’t know how to handle this tonal shift; Ford’s required to be outraged, but with a man-child twist, and he’s found shrouded in semi-darkness in an armchair ready to confront his wife as if this is now a murder thriller.
Ford simply isn’t up to any of this. His ability with humour is usually as a witty contrast, the cynic or the surprised, as a reflection of his assumed cocky self-assuredness. Put him in material where he has to shed his personality and he’s stiff and formal; there are no more layers for him to explore and the consequent attempts to be funny are simply strained. And yet, thismight have worked as a comedy, with a funny man in the lead, the odd drool and serious rehabilitation moments duly excised for being insensitive (but then, back then, maybe it would have got by for laughs). Indeed, a variant was remade six years later, in which Jim Carrey’s remote, aloof workaholic hotshot lawyer dad undergoes a personality change for the betterment of all concerned.
Comedy, via a broadness of tone, would certainly have been more forgiving, since everything about Mike Nichols’ movie is unutterably crude – including, according to John Leguizamo, the crew pissing in the director’s cappuccino machine – and one can lay this at his door to the extent that he saw fit to leave Abrams’ material intact. He had, after all, more than his share of a great pictures behind him – The Graduate, Silkwood and the recent Postcards from the Edge among them – and he’d previously teamed successfully with Ford on Working Girl.
Henry at the outset isn’t just a bad guy because he berates his daughter for spilling juice on the piano, or because he buries evidence to ensure victory in a court case; he’s a villain because he slicks back his hair like Michael Douglas in Wall Street and smokes with abandon (Ford’s really bad at making it looks as if his character actually smokes). He’s mean to his secretary and far more concerned with a dining-room table he doesn’t like than human decency. The thing is, Ford doesn’t even really pull off this version of Henry, almost as if you can see that deep down, he knows the project is a bust. That it’s obvious, shallow and cheap. He looks uncomfortable playing a man who is entirely comfortable in his casually Machiavellian posturing. He’s Bill Murray’s part in Scrooged, but without any of the accompanying fun.
Actually, there’s one genuinely affecting moment, as Henry goes to a convenience store late at night to get some smokes, insults the owners (whom he assumes don’t know English) and gets shot in the chest and head by Leguizamo (two years from his twin breaks as Luigi Mario and Benny Blanco, and thus still consigned to playing Latino hoods). It’s a moment where Ford’s startled/constipated acting really works, babbling “Will you wait just a minute” as a spot of blood wheals on his forehead before stumbling out of the shop and collapsing. If the rest of this picture had anything approaching this impact, it might at least have been memorable.
I seem to recall Premiere magazine, in its box office preview of the summer of 1991, had this pegged as one of the big hits of the season, and not unreasonably so, given all the cynically calculated maths laid out above as to why it should have done well. Dying Young also seemed like a sure thing, before it was realised that audiences went to America’s sweetheart Julia for uplift, not misery. Regarding Henry was expected to make an easy $100m but did less than half that – by Ford’s standards a flop – so setting the tone for anything that wasn’t an action movie for the star for the remainder of the decade. Reviews weren’t kind, but in retrospect they should have been much more savage. Very cute puppy, though.
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