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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.