Review: The Book of Henry

The Book of Henry movie poster
The Book of Henry

 

Another in an occasional series of movie reviews. Generally I’ll go for the new movies out on current release, but occasionally I’m going to review things I’ve come across that I think are worth a mention. As usual; a before and after summary but this time with an added ‘bonus’ of critical reaction to the movie.

Before:

I saw the trailer for The Book of Henry quite some time before it came out in June 2017 and thought it looked quite interesting. A boy who gets suspicious of his neighbour and starts keeping a journal on how he’s going to foil him. As I say, quite interesting: a bit Rear Window perhaps, and hopefully not too Hollywood ‘Home Alone’ style where a kid outsmarts the bad guy(s) with little risk of personal danger.

Then the movie came out.

I don’t remember reading many of the reviews in detail, but I know it was pretty much universally panned and sunk at the box office. So much so that many suggested that was the reason that director Colin Trevorrow lost the Start Wars IX gig, with Disney getting cold feet and bringing back JJ Abrams.

The movie slipped off my radar and I didn’t spot it on iTunes, and it hasn’t yet turned up on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It came back onto my radar when I was writing my recent post on Gregg Hurwitz. Truth be told, I wasn’t even aware that Hurwitz was responsible for writing the script for the movie, but when one reader, Sam Staley,  liked my post and shared a link to his own review of the film, I decided to check it out on Now movies. I deliberately haven’t read Sam’s review yet: I will do after writing my own here, and discuss it, and other critics’ reactions at the end of this piece.

After:

First and foremost, I don’t get the critical distaste for the movie. How close was I in my ‘before’ expectations? Meh, so-so.

Yes, TBoH centres on the titular Henry, a younger version of Will Hunting but with added empathy and an all-round caring attitude: to his mother, his next-door-neighbour female friend, and particularly to his fragile younger brother Peter. Henry is more than bright: he’s a bona fide genius who is at regular school because, as he explains again to his teacher in the movie’s opening scene,  it’s better for his psycho social development for him to interact with a peer group at a normal school environment’. His main concerns are securing financial stability for his mother Susan (Naomi Watts, at her very best) through stock market management, protecting his little brother from the high school snots, and worrying about the girl-next-door Christina (‘my future daughter-in-law’ as his mother asides) – a worry that we realise early on, may have some merit, under the over-watchful eye of her step-father Glenn (Dean Norris), who just happens to be the local Chief of Police.

So far, so much according to my expectations. We follow Henry in his day-to-day life, including some casual spying on randoms…or maybe not so casual as it turns out.

The film moves along nicely for the first twenty-thirty minutes. Characters are well-developed in succinct manners and actions. Henry and Peter’s relationship as brothers reminded me a little of the characters of Bill and George in Stephen King’s IT – particularly the extended detail in the novel, and it was only afterwards that I realised that Jaeden Lieberher (Henry) actually played Bill in the recent adaptation of Kin’s monster novel. He’s as good here as he was in that. Jacob Tremblay as his younger brother is no slouch either – and with key roles in Room, Wonder and lined up for the forthcoming Doctor Sleep, the ties to King keep coming. In fact the whole cast is good: not just the aforementioned, but also Sarah Silverman in a small, but perfectly realised, part, and Dean Norris as the shady father next door: if he has little screen time, he does a lot to ensure a lurking menace.

Is Henry right in his suspicions? Will he thwart the nefarious goings on if he is? Will his mother find out what he’s up to and will she believe him if she does? Will he drag his younger brother into the adventure and will they face peril from the man they suspect is up to no good?

Well, no. Pretty much none of that, and to say more would be to spoil things.

Suffice to say the movie takes a turn at the 40 minute mark that threw me in a way that few movies have for a very long time and made me glad I didn’t know more about the movie going in and makes it quite hard to talk about the movie in general without giving spoilers away. If there is one work of fiction this did remind me of, but only afterwards it’s the one I mention in the spoilers section at the end of this piece.

What I would say is that there are definite tropes throughout the movie, but they’re played with cleverly – no better demonstrated in a moment with Watts listening to instructions through an earpiece – the scenes in question are just reaching the point where you go past ‘amusing’ to ‘alright, this is getting a little unrealistic’ and then suddenly it’s turned on you. And the impact of it is jolting. A bit purple in explanation? Sorry. Don’t want to spoil things.

While I wouldn’t have known it was Hurwitz that had written this, I would have guessed it was a very seasoned mystery writer – it’s just too confident in its story and handling of it not to be. Apparently TOO confident for many…

In summary, this is a movie really worth seeing: for the uniformly excellent performances, for the way it uses a mystery that may or may not be real to tell a family story of emotion. (I cried twice: as anyone that knows me knows, that’s not saying a huge amount: I do blub easily – but these tears were earned by the story).

What is the titular book? It’s fair to say it’s Henry’s diary of his findings, but beyond that it’s fair to say its importance is deserving of the title, way beyond what might be initially expected.

I’m not even sure why critics would be so down on it, which I’m going to take a look at right now…

Critics and final thoughts. Warning – here there be spoilers.

And I’m jotting these notes down as I come across things, so this may get a bit messy.

The movie has a 22% score on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s just plain wrong.

The consensus seems to be that it has delusions of ambition, has a badly judged tonal switch and a ‘deeply maudlin twist’ but at the same time is a sickly throwback to ‘Amblin’ movies. (Well, it features kids and has a Spielberg connection with its director, but otherwise, don’t see it.) There seems to be constant issues with the ‘unrealistic’ nature of Henry’s genius and his ‘Mother Theresa’ level of caring and precociousness. Well, if that’s your starting point for problems, yep, you are going to have problems with it. Personally, I thought it was more interesting to see a spectrum level child genius who wasn’t socially incapable and/ or emotionally stunted. And the precociousness? I’d have said the exact opposite – hell, the titular character even pokes fun at the issue.

I was surprised how many critics gave the midway plot point away, Peter Travers comments “To avoid explicit plot spoilers, in the improbable case that you can’t see them coming…” and goes on to provide badly presented spoilers. Well, I didn’t see it coming in the way it did: in a ‘normal’ movie it would have happened at the end, with case closed, if it happened at all. But given the fact Peter Travers is apparently more concerned about whoring himself out for movie poster quotes, I don’t really pay too much attention to him – at least he’s written something original here, unlike “A smart, sexy and seriously funny comedy” (Eternal Sunshine and 500 Days of Summer: someone likes recycling…),

The Chicago Reader says of the 40 minute plot point I mentioned that  “This shift in genre is an ambitious gamble, and I don’t think it plays out successfully. I’d rather see where Hurwitz was going with the relationship between Henry and Sheila than sit through yet another Rear Window knock-off.” Well, I partly agree with that: I don’t want to see another Rear Window knock-off either, although I think Colin Trevorrow is about as wrong as a person can possibly be when he says that Alfred Hitchcock is ‘over-rated’, but I like to see something that plays with genre. It’s interesting. And, for me, the shift worked.

Was the movie perfect? No. I’m not saying that – the ending was a little too neatly tied up (although at the same time, I liked the fact that having decided not to kill her neighbour and then finding him confronting her, Watt’s character doesn’t grab the gun and kill him out of self-defence: that really is a pat ending we’ve seen too many times), the alcoholism displayed is treated as a bit of a character quirk rather than a real issue (but again, I don’t particularly want to see grief or suffering played out through long, repetitive binges: there are other films for that), and Lee Pace’s Doctor character is given quite short shrift.

Was it different from a million other movies out there? Yes. Did it look good for a $10 million FX free piece? I thought so. Would I like to see the original ‘black comedy’ version the director referred to saying he ‘wasn’t interested in’. Sure.

If you’ve seen the movie, and therefore don’t mind spoilers, take a look at Sam Staley’s review: it’s better than this one: more in-depth and nuanced, but we seem to be along the same lines.

Oh, and the slight resonance of that mid-point plot twist? As I wrote this, and having written so recently about William Goldman, it came to mind that there was a correlation with the death of the assumed protagonist Luther Whitney in David Baldacci’s break through novel ‘Absolute Power‘ – as William Goldman pointed out in ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ when he came to adapt the novel for screenplay he decided he couldn’t kill the character off half-way through leaving his daughter to follow his clues on how to solve the case…he write about it, brilliantly of course, giving an insight into the dilemma a writer faces when charged with meeting a star’s demands: whether the end result made Absolute Power the movie better than the book is debatable: here Hurwitz didn’t have that pressure – it was his script, working with a less-stellar star crew and it wasn’t the story he wanted to tell. It wasn’t the only thing that critics took against the movie for, but it certainly played a part. Hollywood – unafraid to take chances, eh? 

 

 

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