Love it or hate it, I typically have at least a marginal understanding of what a film was supposed to be and how it came about by the time the credits roll. The Book of Henry does not conform to those norms. Is it a black comedy? Is it a thriller? Is it a family drama? I’ll be damned if I could tell you to any reasonable degree of certainty. The one thing I can say for a fact is that I left the theater with the distinct impression that I had seen something wrong — and that’s something I typically like. But here? I don’t know…
At least on a superficial level, Henry is a quirky indie dramadey in the precocious tween genius mold. But what happens from there is some of the most batshit crazy tonal dissonance I’ve ever had the dubious privilege to witness. The word “disjointed” doesn’t even begin to do this film justice. The story ostensibly follows Henry, an 11-year-old whose talents range from stock picking to building Rube Goldberg machines. Quirky single mother (Naomi Watts) exploits these talents to keep herself in cheap wine and XBox games while holding down a dead-end waitressing job with quirky friend Sarah Silverman and quirky boss Bobby Moynihan — there’s just way too much quirk going on with this setup, especially given what comes next. This is the predictably charming status quo until Henry discovers that not-so-quirky neighbor Dean Norris is abusing his stepdaughter, but none of the adults in a position to do something about it seem inclined to entertain criminal accusations leveled by an 11-year-old at the town’s well-connected police commissioner.
Now, this limited plot synopsis sounds suitably overstuffed as is, but that’s just act one. Act two digresses into hospital melodrama, convoluted murder plots and staggeringly wrongheaded feats of deus ex machina that will strain the credulity of even the most accepting audiences. Gregg Hurwtiz’s debut feature script careens blindly between plot devices like the ball animating the aforementioned Goldbergian machinations and, as is often the case with such constructs, arrives at a conclusion that is particularly pointless. Director Colin Trevorrow’s stylistically inconsistent direction does less than nothing to improve matters.
It’s not that Henry is a terrible film; at the very least, it’s not boring — which scores huge points for me these days. Naomi Watts is terrific (though not as good as she’s been in the new season of Twin Peaks), and for once the child actors (Jaden Liehberher, Jacob Tremblay, Maddie Ziegler) all perform reasonably well. But the film comes across as though Wes Anderson and Chris Columbus were pitted against David Lynch and the Coen brothers in a battle for script supremacy, with each team capturing chunks of the plot. The results are nowhere near as interesting as that prospect sounds.
Trevorrow’s distinct lack of experience behind the camera has garnered savage reprisal in light of comments in which he described his uncontested job helming the multimillion-dolar Jurassic World as a “master’s degree in directing blockbusters,” with cries of nepotism and sexism being leveled due to the executive hand-wringing that accompanied WB’s patently prudent decision to put more experienced female director Patty Jenkins in charge of Wonder Woman. While Trevorrow’s current status as a favorite target of internet ire may be a question of bad timing, it’s also largely justified. Henry left me hoping Disney might consider replacing him in the director’s chair for Star Wars: Episode IX — maybe even with (gasp) a woman. Wouldn’t that be novel? Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark.