Let me be frank, this film was only on my radar because of the horrendous reception it has received from pretty much ever major film critic in the English speaking world. I had been tracking The Book Of Henry ever since seeing the absolutely bizarre trailer some months ago. Though I’d hate to see a real life car crash, I can’t deny taking great pleasure in watching one of the cinematic disaster variety, so in I went, literally the only person (masochist) in the screening. Could this little picture really be the big failure that everyone seems to think it is?
Oh HELL YES. I don’t even know what to say or, where to begin. The Book Of Henry is a hot damn mess, but unlike other world renowned stinkers like Diana (hey Naomi Watts) or Gigli, it’s kind of a glorious hot mess that, a film that doesn’t know it’s a hot mess and chugs along regardless, totally unaware of the affect it is having on its viewer. The revolves around single mother Susan Carpenter (Watts), a sweetly irresponsible woman who has an overly dependent relationship with her two sons Henry (Jaeden Jaeden Lieberher) and Peter (Jacob Tremblay), the former of which is something of child prodigy, investing in the stock market to ensure his mother’s financial stability and generally being the ‘responsible one’. Frankly, the less said about the plot the better, but just know that what starts out as small scale, quirky family drama about unusual family dynamics takes more than one turn in to absolute insanity, and I’m not talking the good, Mad Max: Fury Road kind.
Young Henry cannot shake the suspicion that his neighbour and classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler) and being abused by her step-father (Dean Norris), and in the blink of an eye the picture becomes a bizarre, painfully cliched, painfully written vigilante justice thriller (if you can’t keep track of this review, just imagine what the actual movie is like). What is most striking is the film’s failure to settle on any distinct tone. From one scene to the next, the thematic landscape can change from cute bedtime stories to child abuse to terminal illness. As a viewer, you simply have to fasten your seatbelt and roll with the punches because the movie isn’t interested at all in getting you settled in to an enjoyable rhythm. Honestly, I haven’t seen a film go so off the rails since The Girl On The Train (ba dum tss!). Apologies, I’m in a silly mood thanks to this movie, which I suppose is preferable to the kind of utter despair or rage that the likes of recent disasters Suicide Squad and Passengers evoked. Ultimately, the directions that the narrative takes really need to be seen to be believed, it genuinely feels like somebody stuck the front end of My Sister’s Keeper on to the back end of Hard Candy. It’s over sentimental and manipulative in parts and over dramatic in others, what it never feels for a single second is authentic.
One of the most baffling things about The Book Of Henry is that although it is a catastrophe, you can’t particularly fault any of the central performances. The film’s failures are purely (and unforgivably) on a plot and dialogue based level. As child actors go, you’d be hard pushed to find two better than Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay right now. As Henry, Lieberher does a great job of playing a quintessential precocious kid without ever coming across of obnoxious or contrived, and Jacob Tremblay as younger brother Peter continues to exude the talent and charm that made us all fall in love with him in Room. The moments and scenes that the two young actors share, before the narrative descends in to madness, are arguably the most enjoyable of the film. Lieberher and Tremblay share a great on screen chemistry, believable brothers with a believable connection.
Frankly, Naomi Watts should know better at this point, but she has shown us on more than one occasion that she is prone to making a shambles of a film every now and then. Perhaps we share some of that masochistic nature that drew me to watch this mess in the first place. Nevertheless, she takes the role of Susan in her stride and looks genuinely committed to the chaos. Supporting performances are given with less success, Dean Norris as prime antagonist Glenn Sickleman is about as stereotypical and one dimensional as you can get, and Sarah Silverman plays an exaggerated best friend to Watts who feels completely superfluous to the already mad plot.
Overall, The Book Of Henry is a marvel of modern Hollywood. The amount of levels of approval this film would have had to go through without to make it to the big screen in this bizarre format is astonishing. Rotten Tomatoes’ 23% feels about right, because whilst the film lacks nearly any cinematic or narrative merit, it has just enough about it to make you want to finish the roller coaster ride, no matter how nauseas you feel. It didn’t offend me like Passengers or completely bore me like Suicide Squad, its just a tonally schizophrenic mess that will absolutely baffle you at every turn.