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Complain all you want about Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry — one thing you can’t say is that it’s not enough movie. It begins as a kid-genius family picture, then abruptly becomes a terminal-illness melodrama; it winds up a bizarro thriller in which deeply unlikely crimes are plotted from beyond the grave, but not before some child-molestation action pitting a defenseless girl against her stepfather, the commissioner of police.
The preposterousness of Gregg Hurwitz’s screenplay isn’t enough to throw star Naomi Watts off her game, and the actor’s sincere performance may suffice to keep a segment of the family-film demographic on board, barely. Another group, though, will find acceptance much harder: Those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to care about the latest Star Wars trilogy may be made fearful about the prospect of an Episode IX directed by Trevorrow. The garden-variety blockbuster lameness of his Jurassic World was one thing; after this near-catastrophe, can he really be trusted with the fate of the Jedi?
Watts plays Susan Carpenter, single mother of two kids: bespectacled, adorable Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and the aforementioned genius Henry (Jaeden Lieberher). Henry does his mom’s books while she plays video games on the sofa; he calls his stockbroker while waiting to be picked up from school. When he isn’t taking care of his family or engaging in myriad extra-curricular scholarly endeavors, Henry steals glances out the window into the bedroom of next-door neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler). He’s so disturbed by what he soon sees that he makes fixing her problem his sole project.
This would be a good time for readers who’d like to experience the film’s twists first-hand to leave the room.
Just as Henry is digging into books about crime investigation and trying to get Child Protective Services interested in Christina’s plight, he collapses in what looks like an epileptic seizure. Turns out he has a brain tumor. When the dreamy Dr. Daniels (Lee Pace) comes to his hospital room to break the news, Henry talks to him as if he were a colleague: “My MRI?,” he asks, then examines the scans. “Irradiate?” No, not possible. Henry’s going to die.
Die he does, but not before insisting that Peter will make sure their mother reads a red journal he has left behind — a book containing all he knows about the house next door and his plan for making things right.
Spoiler-averse readers have moved on, right? Because it’s impossible to report how stupid things get without being specific. It turns out that Henry wants his mother to become a sniper and kill Christina’s stepdad (Dean Norris), following a very specific plan he started making in the days before his illness was discovered. We’re asked to believe that, while his mother slept by his hospital bed, Henry escaped the hospital, went home and wrote all his instructions to her in his journal. Then he recorded tapes for her to play as she followed those instructions, walking her through every step of the action — predicting her wrong turns, answering the questions she’ll ask at the very moment they occur to her, praising her for her surprising acumen with a rifle.
If one is still taking things seriously at this point, one might wonder why the about-to-die child didn’t just commit the felony himself, leaving a note explaining his motives. Things get even more implausible after this point, but it wasn’t until a bit of parallel editing involving a middle-school talent show that critics in a Tribeca screening room finally stopped holding their laughter back.
Trevorrow went out on some limbs also in his first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed. There, though, he was making a Sundance-ready indie with actors who knew their way around the intersection of ironic quirks and real soul-searching. Here, the idiom of the wholesome family film makes no room for the cheap caper-flick stuff Hurwitz wants to sell us. And the compounding coincidences he requires in order to deliver a happy ending are almost disgustingly dishonest.
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Double Nickel Entertainment
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Dean Norris
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenwriter: Gregg Hurwitz
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Carla Hacken, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman
Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell, John Penotti, Nick Meyer, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editor: Kevin Stitt
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Casting directors: Jessica Kelly, Suzanne Smith Crowley
Rated PG-13, 104 minutes