Film Review: The Book of Henry

Preposterous genre stew with wacky plot spasms and underdeveloped characters populating a family yarn of sorts about an 11-year-old genius’ mother-driven vengeance plan. Nice scenery and performances provide some relief.
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Director Colin Trevorrow moves from Jurassic World and its elusive giant animals to The Book of Henry, a cinematic park where big themes and too many twists elude capture. Viewers get to see Naomi Watts if not at her best at least doing her best with the story she’s given. And they’ll also discover young Jaeden Lieberher, impressive as the titular Henry, and seasoned TV actor Dean Norris (deserving of strong feature roles) in good form and in a lower Hudson Valley town and woody settings that are also pleasing.

The Book of Henry wraps such assets and considerable liabilities in a story that readily establishes working-class Susan (Naomi Watts), a waitress at the town’s modest coffee shop. She’s a single mother devoted to her two sons: Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), an 11-year-old with a convincing genius I.Q. and also a heart of gold dedicated to saving those deservedly in need, and eight-year-old Peter (Jacob Tremblay, the sensation of Room), who, bullied by his classmates, has Henry effectively defending him. Even if the family is truncated, mother and sons are an exemplary close-knit unit; Susan gives strength and love to her boys and they return the love. Henry, especially gifted, also helps her in many ways.

Meanwhile, living next door are neighbor Glenn (Dean Norris), a bossy busybody on the local police force, forever peeved that Susan’s untended leaves land on his property, and Glenn’s stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), a sweet, shy classmate of Henry’s who may have a crush on him. It should be noted that the film quickly establishes Henry as especially skilled in stock-market trading and building elaborate Rube Goldberg-like gizmos that stun and distract, elements that play a role later in the film.

Less consequential is comedienne Sarah Silverman’s Sheila, a boozy waitress colleague of Susan’s, there to assure Susan’s credibility as a struggling working-class mother completely devoted to and even dependent upon her sons.

A crisis intervenes out of nowhere when Henry suddenly has a violent seizure and is hospitalized. Susan learns from Dr. Daniels (Lee Pace) that her son has a massive, inoperable brain tumor. The kindly doctor later gives signs of emerging as a possible romantic interest.

Much follows Henry’s hospitalization, as plot turns—lamely foreshadowed or set up—pile up (among these, in no particular order, are child abuse, a financial windfall, a shotgun death, a tour de force ballet performance, a massive fake blizzard and a ridiculously complicated crime caper). To get more specific would get obsessive spoiler-alert watchdogs screaming from their watchtowers.

Not helping on the failed credibility front is that characters are given no backstory whatsoever (though a backstory piece on how this film got made and attracted the talent would be interesting). Stick figures like these were never meant to stand on their own.

In terms of storytelling, a less strenuous and contrived “Henry’s Book” approach might have given The Book of Henry the emotional life and credibility it needs. But it fumbles for tone and genre as it tries on for size a bit of family film, crime story, romance, medical drama, and even a coming-of-age tale in an ironic “Child is father to the man” twist that has wise Henry “mothering” his needy mom. Mercifully, comedy adds no further confusion, except that some members of the screening audience laughed as the film neared its corny conclusion.

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