Film Review: “The Book of Henry” Is But Glossy Contrivance

Film poster: “The Book of Henry”

The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow, 2017) 1 out of 4 stars.

To be brief: there is nothing wrong with The Book of Henry that a good script could not fix. Given what we have, however, courtesy of screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz (who has worked mostly in episodics, with this his first feature), we’re stuck. A dismal exercise in manipulative contrivance that manages to both wallow in tragedy and trivialize it, The Book of Henry is a chore. What saving graces it has come from the committed performances of its stars – including Naomi Watts (While We’re Young), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Jacob Tremblay (Room) – and the fine visual texture of the production design, courtesy of Kalina Ivanov* (Rabbit Hole). If you like your stories implausible and tonally inconsistent, then this is the movie for you. If not …

Henry (Lieberher) is an 11-year-old genius, which in this universe means he can do everything. He lives in a large, well-apportioned house with his mother (Watts) and younger brother (Tremblay). We never quite learn how they can afford these digs (mom is a waitress in a diner), though the word alimony is bandied about at one point, but it seems clear that Henry has something to do with it, since he manages the finances and is (did I mention it?) a genius. Next door to them lives a widower (Dean Norris, Hank on Breaking Bad), whose step-daughter is in the same class as Henry. If this seems like a perfect rom-com set-up, for both parents and kids, think again. Let’s at least give Hurwitz some credit for avoiding that trap, though we would be forgiven for thinking of such a possibility given the saccharine music – from the usually reliable Michael Giacchino (Up) – that leads us from opening credits to early scenes. What eventually happens may avoid that particular cliché, but it is but one positive amidst a mass of absurdities.

Jaeden Lieberer as Henry in “The Book of Henry” ©Focus Features

Henry (the genius), is a young man with ideas, and these he writes down in a notebook (i.e., “The Book of Henry”). The title sequence reveals his drawings and schematics in a nice series of short animations, but eventually it will turn out that this book mostly contains one single plan that is as ludicrous as it is abhorrent. Let us just say that trauma brings out the worst in everyone here, especially since we only ever get sketch-like motivations and character development to support our view of said tragedy. In that sense, the book is the perfect metaphor for the entire affair: beautifully constructed, yet with a rotten core, like a person who is all surface charm, but no soul. It’s a shame, since clearly a lot of effort went into this. Whatever inexplicable reasons drew director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) to the story, he has given it his best shot, and the production value is glossy, even if in service of superficiality. May everyone involved find a more worthy project next time.

*Full disclosure: The Emmy-winning (for Grey Gardens) Ms. Ivanov is a friend (though – ha, ha! – perhaps not after this review).

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice."
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