I realized I was probably going to hate Book of Henry inside of five minutes, probably around the time the 11-year-old protagonist jumped on a payphone to call his stockbroker after class and then went home to work on his Rube Goldberg machine. (Which of those is even the lamer movie cliché?) The surprise wasn’t that it was bad, it was that it would eventually encompass so many different kinds of bad. From its beginnings as a precocious whimsical wonder fart, Book of Henry gradually morphs into a Nicholas Sparksian cancer tearjerker, a messages-from-beyond teen romance, and a weirdly sanitized dramedy about sexual abuse. A good rule of thumb for all aspiring filmmakers: Probably don’t do dramedy about child rape. Remember that commercial that brought a dead Fred Astaire back to life so he could dance with a vacuum? Book of Henry feels like if Wes Anderson died and came back as a Hallmark Channel special.
Book of Henry is directed by Colin Trevorrow, previously of Jurassic World and the well-received Safety Not Guaranteed, though he seems to have disappeared entirely into an attempt at whatever genre this is. Jaeden Lieberher, who was so good in the underrated St. Vincent, plays Henry, a quippy 11-year-old prodigy who in the first scene lays out his life philosophy during a class presentation about what the kids want their legacy to be (you know, a normal assignment that 11-year-olds are given in normal schools). “First of all, isn’t the whole idea of legacy just comfort food to stave off existential crisis?” he begins. Then he goes onto say that life is short and we should all just be nice to each other while we’re still on this side of the grass.
Where does a movie go when an 11-year-old already knows the meaning of life in the first scene? Henry is so transparently meant to represent our idealized selves that the scene says far more about the people it’s meant to appeal to than the story — namely, that we’re comfortable (Henry is rich, because of stocks), slightly disaffected (he worries about existential crises), know-it-alls (child prodigy). It belongs to an entire genre of indie-ish dramedy dedicated to unconventional or “cute” characters like precocious kids or rappin’ grannies telling upper middle class intellectuals what we already think. The character Henry is basically a misattributed inspirational Facebook quote come to life. “Definitely you should buy that new car, Dave, for a man only lives once,” –Mahatma Gandhi.