The Book of Henry is better suited for Adult Swim rather than the silver screen
by Steve Pulaski
The Book of Henry is one of the damnedest movies to be released this, or any other, year. A well-acted but terribly loony picture with a seriously questionable premise, the film deals with a grieving mother who capitalizes on her 11-year-old son's dying wish to murder their allegedly abusive neighbor. During this time, the mother and her younger, surviving son - who is mostly aware of his late brother's plea - carry on as if this is a normal demand, with her following the exquisitely detailed instructions left by him on an audio cassette and the many pages of a leather-bound notebook.
Such demands from the dead child include having his mother go to a seedy gun-shop to request illegal contraband by referencing some unknown soul that makes the gun-dealer allow the woman to purchase a heavy artillery sniper rifle. Then there are moments when Henry instructs his mother to "go right," then when she walks left, we hear Henry say, "your other right" on the recording. Are we really to believe Henry's mother is this inept and Henry is really this prophetic?
To catch you up, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 11-year-old genius, kept out of a school for gifted children in hopes his psycho/social development will not be hindered. He also exists as "the man of the house" as he lives with his single-mom Susan (Naomi Watts) and younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay), handling all the bills of the house while managing money-mutual funds and CDs while his mother plays video-games. Susan is a barely competent adult, working at a low-level diner and often getting drunk with her wino friend/coworker Sheila (Sarah Silverman).
But one day, Henry's frequent headaches and bouts of blurred vision accelerate into a violent seizure that sends him to the hospital and into surgery rather quickly. Henry has a terminal tumor in his head, presumed to be brain cancer, but the doctor nor screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz ever confirm this. Prior to this, Henry became gravely concerned with the well-being of his neighbor and classmate Christina Sickleman (Maddie Ziegler), and had reason to believe her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris) had been abusing her on a regular basis.
This is where Henry's dying wish to his mother comes in, as he, as stated, outlines an elaborate plan - apparently all while he was lying weak and feeble in his hospital bed - with tremendous situational foresight in order not to remain apathetic to someone truly in need of help.
The brazen comic value of such a frequently idiotic premise saves it from being the utterly contemptible mess it could've been. Admirably different but disappointingly straight-forward, The Book of Henry lacks the commitment to its eclectic, darkly comedic premise that would've made the tonal shift at the second half less jarring. Moments that prompt strong comedy come in the form of a romantic moment Sarah Silverman shares with a dying 11-year-old that could've led to a Tadpole-esque relationship, but I digress, as well as Susan's unbelievable commitment to the twisted plan her son crafted. Her moment of realization is less a moment of true insight, but rather, a spark of common sense. Even though, by then, we've pegged Susan as someone who isn't particularly bright, we at least had faith in her to recognize the real implications behind Henry's wishes, but perhaps, as a result, we overestimated her character.
The dichotomous halves that make up Book of Henry's whole cross a saccharine story of a precocious young child (ala this year's Gifted) with a serious thriller about the implications of child abuse. At the center of it is a capable performance by Watts and Lieberher, who satisfies on-screen and makes you wish the film didn't disregard its most likable and thoughtful character so soon. Other recognizable faces are relegated to a supporting cast of champions, such as Sisters' Bobby Moynihan as Susan's manager, Bad Grandpa's Jackson Nicoll as the school bully, and All My Children's Tonya Pinkins as Henry's principal. Silverman, despite starring in quite possibly the strangest film of her career, which says a lot, doesn't compromise her own skill-level and is one of the few consistently bright parts in a truly perplexing movie.
In addition to all of that, plot-holes, strangely placed moralizing, and indifferent direction by Colin Trevorrow - who will helm Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Star Wars: Episode IX over the next two years - work to rain on The Book of Henry's kooky, if mostly entertaining, parade. This kind of premise is ripe for the kind of treatment the wacky and creative forces behind some of Adult Swim's best TV shows can give it rather than a straight-edge, serious meditation by a once-indie director now an apparent go-to for the next $1 billion grosser.
If The Book of Henry is Trevorrow's statement that he's still perfectly connected and willing to dabble back into the realm of low(er)-budget features, it should be noted how the stupidity and gloss of those nine-figure efforts seemed to have come back with him.
Steve's Grade: D+