[This post contains spoilers about The Book of Henry]
When I walked out of the theater after seeing The Book of Henry, which felt like it was too long yet also not long enough, I wanted to tell everyone about what I had just watched. Actually, “watched” is too weak of a word — about what I had just experienced. The thing is, I didn’t know where to begin.
How does one accurately summarize a movie where a precocious-yet-smug 11-year-old genius tries to protect his neighbor, whom he has a crush on, from her sexually abusive stepfather, who’s also the town’s police commissioner, so he devises a plan to kill him but before he can “rescue” her, the precocious, yet smug 11-year-old genius dies from a brain tumor, but he leaves behind a notebook and tape recorder with exact instructions for how his mom can murder the stepfather with a sniper during a talent show… all in one text? And that still leaves out the parts of the movie where Sarah Silverman-dressed-as-Amy Winehouse kisses a dying child on the mouth, and Naomi Watts (who goes along with her son’s plan after delivering the instantly immortal line, “We are not killing the police commissioner”) is briefly an alcoholic, and the climax is set to a montage of children burping, rapping, and dancing.
The Book of Henry is straight-up bonkers, and I loved it.
There’s a difference between a bad movie and a misguided movie. A bad movie is Baywatch, or Fifty Shades Darker, or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. They’re genuinely boring and bland, a product of studio interference and/or indifference from the filmmakers. They’re made for everyone, and therefore no one. They exist to make money, not because they’re anyone’s passion project. But a misguided movie? That’s how you end up with something like The Room or Birdemic: Shock and Terror, instant Mystery Science Theater 3000 and bad movie podcast fodder that leaves viewers delighted in their bafflement. These are movies that play like they were written and directed by people who apparently had never seen a movie before. That’s The Book of Henry.
It’s a good bad movie because everyone involved, from the ridiculously overqualified cast (including Naomi Watts, Jacob Tremblay, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Bobby Moynihan, and Sarah Silverman) to screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz to director Colin Trevorrow, seems to believe they’re making something meaningful. It’s easy to be cynical when you’re a cog in the fifth installment in a billion-dollar franchise based on a toy, but The Book of Henry is an earnest throwback to the Amblin Entertainment ‘80s, with a script Hurwitz has been working on since the ‘90s. I feel bad bagging of it, which is why I won’t, at least not in the same way that I’m comfortable saying Suicide Squad is trash and I hate it. I think The Book of Henry is bad, and I agree with our Vince Mancini when he compares it to “if Wes Anderson died and came back as a Hallmark Channel special,” but I don’t hate it. If anything, I applaud its woefulness.
At least I’ll remember how much I didn’t like it. Fifty Shades Darker is my least favorite movie of the year so far, but I don’t remember why. I know it’s uneventful when it should have been campy, and Jamie Dornan is an actual block of wood in the shape of a human, but I can’t recall literally anything about the film, other than I paid to watch it. If I’m going to see a bad movie, I want it to be memorably bad. There should be a scene where a Rube Goldberg device thwarts an assassination attempt, or a near-millionaire waitress who works at a small-town diner (that’s right) plays Gears of War on Xbox and the ukulele, and for an Academy Award-nominated actress to tell her son, “We are not killing the police commissioner” (I can’t get over this batshit crazy line).
Everything I just described is a million times more entertaining than Jurassic World, which Trevorrow also directed. The fourth film in the Jurassic Park franchise is, objectively speaking, more competent, but that’s what makes it such a frustrating watch. There’s a good movie buried underneath the high heels and Jimmy Fallon cameos. There’s no way to “fix” The Book of Henry, because a) it’s a complete mess (you know how sometimes it’s easier to buy new Christmas lights from Walmart instead of untangling the old ones? This is the movie version of that; fittingly, Henry will be a $5 DVD fixture at big-box stores for years to come), and b) it’s perfectly imperfect as is.
Think of this way: I walked out of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender mad that I had spent my money and time on something so terrible. The Happening, also by Shyamalan, was also terrible, but it was worth every penny, and I’ve re-watched it multiple times since. Where The Last Airbender was joyless and cluttered, The Happening was, well, to quote star Mark Wahlberg, “Fucking trees, man.” The Book of Henry is way more The Happening than The Last Airbender; it’s a masterpiece in failure. We could use more of those, because at least it was trying to do something different. The Book of Henry has a nearly identical Rotten Tomatoes score as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (29% vs. 25%), but in 10 years, no one’s going to be able to tell Dead Men Tell No Tales apart from the other crummy Pirates films before it. The Book of Henry, meanwhile, will endure as a curiosity and a cautionary tale.
Also, the abusive stepfather’s last name is Sickleman. What a movie.