We may never know the precise number and order of baffling decisions that led us to The Book of Henry, but one thing is for sure: this is one of the biggest messes of 2017. It’s not one of the worst movies, it’s not something that’ll make you hate cinema, but it is a film that makes you scratch your head and wonder exactly how professional filmmakers could think that it was a good decision. It gets dumber and dumber as it plays out and, by the time it comes to its conclusion, it’s easy to wonder if it was all one long hallucination—dreamed up by the worst parts of your subconscious.
If you’ve seen the trailer, which is somehow actually an accurate representation of the final product, you already know most of the story, save for one big spoiler plot point that has remained hidden. Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 11-year-old genius who lives with his mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), and younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Henry is mature beyond his years, and his relied upon so much that he even handles the family’s finances—while his mother plays Gears of War.
The family lives next door to a young girl, Christina (Maddie Ziegler) and her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). Henry believes that Christina is being abused by Glenn—but going through the proper channels is leading nowhere; he’s the police commissioner and an “upstanding member of society” and his brother runs Child Protective Services(!). So, Henry creates a plan to save Christina, plotting out, step by step, how his mother can murder Glenn and get away with it.
If the third paragraph of this review feels like tonal whiplash compared to the second one, just imagine how this comes across in the movie. The majority of the first half of The Book of Henry plays out like a bland kid-friendly movie about a child genius. Then abuse. Then planned murder. There’s also an attempted tear-jerking segment. This is a movie that bounces around, tonally, too often to ever feel like a cohesive project. We go from whimsy to death to whimsy to scheming to dancing to more whimsy to contrivance to moral absolution to the credits. That sentence gave me a headache; watching The Book of Henry gave me a migraine.
The movie falls apart in its second half. It has several moments that we can’t believe are possible, plans that require film editing to properly detail, and a conclusion that achieves its desired result while also managing to keep its good characters in the moral right—something that probably sounded smart in the filmmakers’ minds but comes across as flimsy and phony storytelling that gives the audience almost no feeling. And then it’s followed up with another tonal shift for its epilogue.
The Book of Henry is a strong contender for the biggest mess of 2017.
There is something to be said for not always playing to our expectations. The Book of Henry opens one way, we expect it to go in one direction, and it takes a sharp left turn. But then it takes several more turns, heads into oncoming traffic, crashes, and takes out several other cars, pedestrians, and small businesses in the process. Playing with expectations is fun; giving us whiplash isn’t. This is poor storytelling filled with baffling decisions and turns. It’s a whimsical movie filled with a few saccharine moments … whose story is filled with abuse and planned murder. It’s filled with awful dialogue, even worse ideas, and gets stupider as it progresses.
About the only strong elements come from the performers, who are tasked with the near-impossible job of trying to make any of this seem like we should take it seriously. The kids are really good, with Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay delivering a couple of strong performances. Naomi Watts is pretty good, too, although her character is so weird that it’s almost unbelievable. But performances can’t save the story, or the direction, both of which are so bewildering that you have to wonder how anyone signed off on the production.
The Book of Henry is a strong contender for the biggest mess of 2017. Each decision it makes feels wrong. Most of it makes no logical sense and it throws in so many unimportant details that feel like they should lead somewhere but never do. It’s filled with contrivance and convenience—to the point that it’s actively noticeable. It takes a whimsical approach to abuse and murder. It doesn’t make any sense how a movie like this is even possible. Did nobody watch it before release and figure out that it doesn’t, even for a moment, work? The Book of Henry is a disaster.
Conclusion: The Book of Henry is a cinematic mess.
Recommendation: The only reason anyone should watch The Book of Henry is to laugh at it and try to figure out how it all went so wrong.