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The Book of Henry is so deliriously bad, it feels cursed

Eleven things that actually happen in what might be the worst movie of the year, from the future director of Star Wars Episode IX.

The Book of Henry
Henry and his younger brother Peter have all sorts of wacky adventures, but mostly in their imaginations.
Focus Features
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Book of Henry feels cursed.

And by that, I mean literally cursed. It reminded me of the famed videotape from The Ring — once you’ve seen it, you have to pass it along to somebody else, have to make them watch it, too, or else you’ll be dead in a week, the movie’s strange, twitching form crawling out of your local multiplex to haunt you down.

I only saw it because a friend saw it, and when I asked him to explain it to me, he said, “Dude, you just have to see it.” So I went, and it changed me, on some cellular level.

Honestly, I may have told you too much already. Just telling you that this movie is bad might be too much knowledge. The ideal condition for seeing this movie is probably staying up way too late and seeing its description float by you on cable. “Hey, I like some of those actors,” you might think, “Maybe I’ll check it out.” And then, one hour and 45 minutes later, you, too, will be changed.

But for those of you who don’t want to risk being cursed by a well-meaning but fatally misguided bit of dramedy dreck that feels like a 1997 throwback in all the worst ways, well, I’m going to tell you about 11 things that happen in The Book of Henry, getting more spoiler-iffic along the way.

1) A mother lets her 12-year-old son plan out her life

At all times, The Book of Henry feels like a screenwriting exercise gone horribly wrong. All of the characters are cranked up to 15. The dialogue is always, always quirky for no good reason. And every other scene features a new bit of story from what seems like another movie entirely. This is probably the only feel-good family comedy you’ll see this year that features an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired subplot about child abuse.

Anyway, if the movie has a central story, it’s probably about Susan (Naomi Watts) and her oldest son, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), who at times seems to parent her. He does her finances! And makes sure she goes to bed instead of staying up late playing video games!

Yet Susan seems to run a pretty tight ship around her house. There don’t seem to be any adverse consequences to the arrangement the family has, which means that this isn’t a story, and when the movie tries to turn it into one — by having Susan slowly come to realize her son is just a child — it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Weren’t things just fine before?

2) Henry is also apparently a financial genius and successful inventor of Rube Goldberg contraptions

The Book of Henry
Henry’s family relies on his financial genius.
Focus Features

Henry isn’t a character. He’s a collection of weird odds and ends that are meant to suggest a character. In one scene, he’s the odd one out at school. In another, everybody loves him. It’s really hard to track how anybody feels about him, because he doesn’t feel like a real person. (The fatal flaw of this movie is that nothing in it feels like it’s happening to real people — it’s a movie that feels at all turns like it was made by people who only understand humanity from watching other movies.)

Anyway, Henry has over $600,000 in a checking account from playing the stock market, and we don’t find out about it until about midway through the movie. Also, he’s a would-be genius inventor of Rube Goldberg-style devices, though the movie struggles to make this fit within the story.

3) This movie was directed by the guy who made Jurassic World and is slated to direct Star Wars Episode IX

I didn’t hate either Colin Trevorrow’s breakthrough feature, Safety Not Guaranteed, or his mega-hit Jurassic World, though I found both very, very bland, their filmmaking mostly notable for its competence, rather than its spark. That Henry is as bad as it is was a surprise to me, at least.

That said, Trevorrow is probably not the guy you want tackling something like Book of Henry, because the best possible version of it — a film I’m not sure could possibly exist — would require very precise control of tone and an imaginative eye for capturing, say, Henry’s various devices.

When one of them is set off, you want to see the device’s components and its full scope and the way all of the pieces fit together and then watch it do its thing. Trevorrow shoots the various pieces of the contraptions as though they were co-stars who refused to appear in shots together, turning the whole thing into a series of closeups that only create chaos where he probably intends suspense about what the machine will ultimately do.

4) The script has far more Rear Window in it than you’d expect

Of all of the misshapen pieces of this movie that exist in Gregg Hurwitz’s script, the one that gradually comes to take over is a subplot about Henry’s obsession with proving that the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler, famed dancer of Dance Moms and Sia videos, making her big-screen debut), is being abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). The film doesn’t bother to show us Henry building his case — he just tells us a bunch of things about Christina and concludes she’s being abused.

And then he sees evidence of it by looking out his window and seeing Glenn enter Christina’s room late at night. The movie’s PG-13, so we don’t really know what happened (though we can infer), but the movie’s entry into Rear Window territory is pretty strange.

5) This cast is full of people you would not expect to be in a movie this bad

The Book of Henry
Naomi Watts, as always, is very good here.
Focus Features

Watts, God bless her, holds Susan together so well that I thought for about 20 minutes that her character made sense, until I realized, wait a second, she didn’t make any sense at all. Similarly, Norris and Lee Pace (as a kindly doctor) and Sarah Silverman (as Susan’s friend) are all bringing their best to this movie. Even the younger performers — who include Room star Jacob Tremblay — are doing solid work.

It’s not enough. The movie’s awkward, ungainly construction and lack of throughline will just leave you saying, “Oh, right. He’s in this movie,” when, say, Bobby Moynihan pops up for a couple of scenes.

6) Henry and his mom’s friend sorta flirt with each other by insulting each other, then later admit they’re basically in love

Everybody in this movie is in love with Henry on some level. It’s weird.

7) Henry dies midway through the movie

If you’ve seen the trailer for The Book of Henry, you almost certainly know this is going to happen, because the trailer’s cut like Henry’s a ghost or something. That’s not quite accurate, but it’s close enough. Henry spends the last few weeks of his life traveling around his little town of Calvary making arrangements for … something, and then he’s suddenly having intense headaches, and we learn he has a brain tumor. (This movie only foreshadows things one scene before it needs them to pay off as plot points.)

Then he dies!

8) But don’t worry. He’s left his mom detailed instructions for how to kill her neighbor.

Yes, the second half of this movie is Naomi Watts listening to a tape left to her by her dead son about how she needs to set up an elaborate trap to kill Glenn while Christina (who is basically a non-character) is performing a moving ballet at the school talent show.

9) Wait a second. Whatever Glenn’s doing, he’s not even closing the curtains. Couldn’t she just take a picture or something?

The Book of Henry
See? His camera is right there!
Focus Features

The script for this film was written in the ’90s, before the advent of smartphones, and it does its best to keep them out of the story (except, curiously, for a scene where there are a whole bunch of them, breaking the film’s slightly timeless vibe). But Henry carries around a Polaroid camera earlier in the film, and those were around in the ’90s.

What I mean by all of this is that Glenn commits his crimes right out in the open, where Henry’s family can see them transpire. The reason Glenn can’t come to justice through traditional means is that he’s the police commissioner, and his brother is the head of child protective services, but it’s not like Susan can’t get evidence of the horrible crimes happening right next door to her.

What I’m saying is: They don’t have to jump right to murder. There are other methods.

10) At one point, Naomi Watts says, “We are not killing the police commissioner”

This is when the movie is awkwardly trying to be about the relationship between Susan and her younger son, Peter (Tremblay). It’s kind of funny, but not in a good way.

11) The final talent show sequence is staggeringly miscalculated trash

The Book of Henry
Christina dances for the school talent show.
Focus Features

The movie ends with Susan enacting Henry’s plan to kill Glenn, intercut with the student talent show that she’s supposedly supervising (providing her with an alibi). It’s reaching for some of that early Spielberg magic — like when he cut between the kids in class refusing to dissect their frogs and E.T. puttering around the house in E.T. But Trevorrow doesn’t seem to get that cutting from a kid belching the ABCs to Watts trying to commit murder isn’t going to fly.

And what’s sad is that everybody is really trying. Watts is emoting. Norris is menacing. Ziegler is dancing beautifully. The score by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino is soaring. And it all lands with a thud, because Trevorrow doesn’t understand how to modulate any of this, and basically none of it has been built to. (At one point, there are ominous tap dancers!)

The Book of Henry is such a good bad movie because all involved really want to do something meaningful but haven’t really thought about how to guide the audience to that point. It’s a movie that wants to dance but settles for flailing.

Then the end arrives — and I just can’t spoil it. The last emotional beat of this movie is so stupid it made me howl with laughter. It must be seen to be believed. And the second you’re done, tell a friend. I told my friend Genevieve. She’s seeing it tomorrow, and I’m relieved to be rid of the curse.

The Book of Henry is showing in movie theaters nationwide. I dare you to see it.