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.
But it’s not just that Book of Henry, scripted by novelist Greg Hurwitz, is a derivative precocious kids movie that leans heavily on Wes Andersonisms. Gifted and St. Vincent were both that, and they were actually pretty good. In addition to being pandering and derivative, Book of Henry also flails wildly from one tried-and-true emotion generating device to the next, like Tyler Perry with ADHD. It’s hard to truly do this justice without spoiling the hard plot twist about 40 minutes in, but suffice it to say, Henry reaches for the most obvious “BIG SAD THING” without making it seem at all believable, a huge turning point delivered with all the expository elegance of “Walker told me I have AIDs.”
I’ve heard people question what “contrived” means in the context of criticizing fiction. I think it involves reaching for the most “dramatic,” deus ex machina plot point and then treating it without any gravity. It’s jamming in an Earth-shattering event just to teach a facile lesson. Book of Henry is that, except there’s not even a lesson, really, just an extended, bizarre subplot about murdering Henry’s child-molesting neighbor (played by Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris) delivered in the same nerdy-cute tone as the Tenenbaum kids running off to a museum. You know what I hate? Broccoli! And also being sexually abused!
There’s also a handsome doctor (Lee Pace) who becomes love interest to Henry’s mom (Naomi Watts), gratuitous walkie talkie footage, and a finale set at a school talent show, where the molested girl cries while doing solo ballet. My God, it’s just processed sweepings of other dramedies.
Without spoiling any of Book of Henry‘s groan-worthy plot points, the talent show finale sequence is a good illustration of its general ineptitude. The performer, dressed in a typically adorkable child magician’s outfit, drags a big trunk on stage and tells the crowd he’s going to make someone reappear. “Please work,” he adorably whispers to the trunk, before opening it to reveal… a shower of confetti snow. The entire auditorium then rains confetti snow, and the kid gets a tearful standing ovation from the gathered adults. Cool trick, I guess, but… what does it have to do with the thing you just said? And why are all the adults crying? Are we just supposed to see what the intention was and fill in the blanks ourselves? It’s bad enough to make drivel, don’t make us make the drivel for you.