Skip to main content

I’m calling because I’m going to get to the leaves, the leaves on the lawn.

The Book of Henry
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Colin Trevorrow, already the object of abject enmity from some quarters for his Jurassic World sequel, and then more so due to the (eventually retracted) engagement to direct Episode IX, received whole new levels of scorn for The Book of Henry, his smaller more personal movie that now slots between Jurassic expeditions. While that response (the final one, although the second at least made some sense too, and as for the first, well it’s only a Jurassic Park movie) makes some sense, given the almost deliriously misconceived nature of the picture, it does tend to ignore that in its own entirely messed-up, wrong-headed way, The Book of Henry is very watchable.

Trevorrow even felt he had to issue a statement in response to the opprobrium the picture provoked (“I do stand by the movie. I know it’s something I am very proud of, and everyone who made it is very proud”) and while I can’t say I’m much of a fan of his previous pictures, I do tend to think good for him for holding his ground (of course, this came before he was dumped off what has recently been titled Rise of Skywalker; I’m not sure the compensation of Jurassic World III necessarily heals that wound). Trevorrow’s track record (in particular Jurassic World) ensured most of the malicious missives were aimed his way, and he undoubtedly has to take responsibility for bringing the project to the big screen, but the author of the screenplay is Gregg Hurwitz, and one has to wonder what unseemly scenarios ever befell him that he came up with such a deranged premise.

One might suggest he’s a brawn-first macho type who pays little attention to the fine print, boasting of how he’s swum with sharks, hung out with SEALS, the CIA and enrolled in mind-control cults, but he cites research as everything, so I don’t know if he’s met the lizard rulers of the world (he worked on the V reboot) or, in this case, hung out with child geniuses. His most popular series (Orphan X) concerns a Bourne-esque hero trained from childhood in a government assassination programme, so it may not have been such a stretch to move from that to a preternatural, terminally-ill kid planning the murder of his child-abuser police commissioner next-door neighbour. Except that The Book of Henry was written nearly twenty years earlier, so perhaps it simply informed later tastelessness. The terminal illness gets in the way of Henry’s plans, so post the fact he enlists his mother, a woman-child gamer who depends on him for all the boring adult stuff like sorting family finances, to do the deed.

It’s such a twisted scenario, you have to give lunatic credit to Hurwitz; it’s the sort of thing Nicolas Cage’s twin brother might have thought up in Adaptation, the sort of thing you shake your head at the mere premise of and then sells to a studio for a mint. Ostensibly, it’s a story about taking responsibility, pointing the finger at mother Susan (Naomi Watts), who at one point dissuades Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) from intervening in a couple’s supermarket altercation on the grounds of it being none of their business (one of the few moments where he’s asking her rather than telling, but tellingly disagreeing with the response, voicing the view that apathy, rather than violence, is the worst thing in the world). Yet she is then persuaded by Henry’s notebook and tape – having voiced the view “We are not murdering the police commissioner and that is final!” – that the only solution to Glenn’s (Dean Norris) crimes is murder. Ultimately, she decides against this (but not before she’s purchased a high-powered sniper’s rifle with a night site and laid a trap for Glenn), because Henry is (was) “just a child” (the implication being that, as immense as his intellect is, his moral framework still required some development).

So Susan has to be a rather frivolous airhead for this to work. And yet, no matter how many lunch boxes full of cakes and sweets – including the sandwich fillings – she gives her other son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in her grieving state, Watts struggles to play the character other than as a good mother; no part of Susan’s motivation really scans, but then the movie as a whole doesn’t exist in any kind of verisimilitudinous state. We’re asked to believe that Henry, with his Rube Goldberg brain and penetrating perceptiveness, couldn’t think of an alternate scheme to bring Glenn to justice? (Perhaps the most alarming element of her parental poise is that Susan only asks what Peter is going to do for his school magic show the day before; how could she not have known this? That, or ignoring Henry imploring her that, with $800k in a chequing account, she doesn’t need to work at the diner anymore.)

It has been suggested too, with some legitimacy, that Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the victim in all this, is little more than a cypher, granted no agency of her own, except, extraordinarily, in managing to make a formal complaint against her stepfather through the medium of interpretive dance during the climactic school talent show (to be fair, this is entirely in keeping with the extraordinary leaps in logic the movie makes; Tonya Pinkins’ principal has previously rejected Henry’s claims regarding Glenn, but one look at Christina’s performance makes it clear he was right all along). I think the issue there, however, is a more general one of the dubiousness of capitalising on such subject matter for the purposes of a thriller, at least unless you’re very sure of the ground you’re treading.

It isn’t as if the picture isn’t littered with dubiousness, of course, perhaps most notably Henry’s “romantic” antagonism towards Susan’s best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), which culminates in the latter kissing the hospitalised, stricken Henry on the lips (sometimes Hollywood needs to ask “Would you play the same scene with the genders reversed?” when they’re fixating on their memories of teenage fantasies).

Nevertheless, there are elements here that seem to have incited ire that I found fine, most notably Henry himself. Had he been played by Haley Joel Osment (as surely he would have been, had this been put into production when Hurwitz first wrote it), doubtless I’d have found him insufferably precocious, but Martell (better known for his role in It: Chapter One) manages to leaven the knows-better quality, such that even the sequence with Lee Pace’s kindly doctor, where they talk shop on the terminal diagnosis, worked for me.

I couldn’t exactly commend the picture for its unhinged narrative choices, then, but the Hitchockian flavour of the second half is definitely not the most inspired way of dealing with the balls the writer has thrown in the air, even with taped Henry miraculously anticipating his mom’s every move (has he been watching Blink?) Hurwitz has said that the picture represents one of his tried-and-trusted avenues “where you meet an ordinary person on the absolute worst day of their life and they have to overcome impossible odds”, but I think I’d have found it more engaging if he hadn’t taken the left turn of offing his lead character, so sticking with his other favoured theme, “a defined hero or heroine”.

As I say, I’m not Trevorrow’s biggest fan, not because I believe he’s some kind of devil incarnate of modern cinema but simply because he tends to make mediocre movies. In that regard, The Book of Henry is something of a game-changer. It’s many things, many of them not complimentary, but it isn’t mediocre. You don’t get thrown off Star Wars for being mediocre (ask Lord and Miller), even if it’s entirely unclear what Kathleen Kennedy’s qualitive criteria are for employment in the first place. And Trevorrow can rest easy in the knowledge that there’s no way a picture this warped doesn’t become a cult classic, the key ingredient being that, for all the dubious or outright bad choices it makes, it’s never boring.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.