The Book of Henry is an educational disaster for screenwriters
According to Liz Lemon, Tootsie (the movie where Dustin Hoffman dressed in drag to get a job) is the example they use in all the screenplay books on what to do when writing a movie. The Book of Henry is, by contrast,a clinic in what NOT to do. It’s just- the thing is… I can’t even! Well, I’ll try to explain.
I’ll start with the pretentious production design. This is the sort of thing you can easily fix when by “production design” you mean, “pile a bunch of crazy crap all over the place” – you just pick it up and move it out of the shot.
This is a kid’s bedroom. I’m serious. Even Wes Anderson is like, “Yeesh, dial it back a little.” You can’t see the pile of vintage suitcases, Christmas lights and whatever the hell else is wandering around. And their tree house is just-
The 1950s era TV and refrigerator, the lightly distressed life preserver, the so obviously painted by props department builder’s tube on the right… Stop it, movie. Just stop it. And that’s to say nothing of the inside.
Why is this a problem? Because like costumes, locations and music, production design is a part of the universe in which this movie takes place, and all of these things (and more) come together to create TONE, and man, is this movie tone deaf. This movie plays like they took three jigsaw puzzles and threw half the pieces from each in the garbage and then mixed them all together.
When this movie was over, I turned to my wife and asked, “Who’s the protagonist?” When it starts, it seems like it’s going to be Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), but that train runs out of steam real fast. Then the focus shifts from [plot device] to Naomi Watts, which is probably what this movie should have been about in the first place – a single mom and her struggles. At least her character (sort of) has an arc! But even calling Watts’ character the protagonist is a stretch and really can’t be done without rewrites, reshoots or at the very least, some severe editing.
Another thing that’s annoying is the ludicrous amounts of foreshadowing. Henry starts the movie out with some voice over –
…and then makes a speech in class that is not only inconsistent with everything he does and says going forward (“it doesn’t matter how many zeros are in your bank account, now hold my beer while I buy and sell these stocks”), but also kinda sounds like he knows how the movie ends. You could also argue that Henry planned out the end of the movie to the exact detail because we are told over and over again that Henry thinks of everything, sees every possibility. It’d ridiculous, but that Rube Goldberg machine at the end of the movie sure does seem to hint at that.
Let’s talk about the plot.
In summary, Henry is a eleven year old genius who goes to a traditional grammar school to better socialize with kids his own age but spends lunch playing checkers with the cafeteria staff. He has made over a million dollars in the stock market, none of which contributes to the household income – it’s just sitting there. He hangs out with his younger brother, his closest friend, and his classmate/next door neighbor, who is being abused by her stepfather. He attempts to intervene via the school principal, but she is reluctant to accuse the local police commissioner (the step father) without proper evidence… by which I guess she means bruises or the kid marching into her office and saying, “Hi Principal Skinner, I’m being abused.” Meanwhile, Henry fusses over financial statements and so on while his mom (a waitress, who somehow affords the mansion filled with quirky stuff they live in) plays video games. It’s not like she should be doing something else, but Henry gives her a hard time about it. Blah blah blah, Henry has a younger brother who gets bullied at school, this stops being important RIGHT ABOUT HERE, when Henry has a seizure in the middle of the night. They rush him to the hospital AND YEP, TERMINAL BRAIN CANCER. Before he dies, Henry makes his brother Peter promise he’ll have his mom AND ONLY HIS MOM read his red notebook. For reasons we aren’t shown, Peter promptly forgets about this and is never bullied again at school. (Those things aren’t related, it’s just an example of the great story telling at play here.) And then Peter remember for some reason AND READS THE NOTEBOOK and Peter dramatically announces, “I think Henry wants us to kill Glen.”
RECORD SCRATCH. Mom then reiterates the running gag about how the kids shouldn’t call their adult neighbor (Glen) by his first name, which is just another example of this movie’s inability to navigate tone. Mom initially dismisses Henry’s plan, because, you know, her dead eleven year old left her point by point instructions to kill the police commissioner with a high powered rifle, so, yeah, probably don’t do that. But then, Mom finds out about Glen abusing young Christina. She tries to go through proper channels, but since Glen’s brother is the local child welfare officer, the investigation seems to amount to:
“Hey Glen, are you abusing Christina?”
“Cool brah. We still catching the game Friday night?”
So the plan is on!
That’s right, Mom is now walking around with a tape recorder, listening to instructions from her dead son on how to withdraw large sums of money ($1500 is not a lot) … out of their own bank account. Apparently, Mom is an idiot and doesn’t know this, so she skulks around town and takes $500 out of individual ATMs (all of which the movie points out have cameras, so…) in rapid sequence to avoid the daily ATM limit withdrawal.
I know, that’s pretty dumb. But just wait.
Initially, Henry was going to kill Glen himself, but once he knew he was dying, he had to set things up so his Mom could finish the job. Here’s the rub – buying the gun. Henry sneaks into the local gun shop and hears a customer drop the name Dominic to purchase illegal firearms, and Henry takes note. Even with this magic ticket, would the gun store owner have sold a rifle to an eleven year old? YEAH, PROBABLY NOT. How Henry planned to get around this, I don’t know, but again, the movie isn’t well written and THE WRITER KNEW HENRY WAS GOING TO DIE, so no problem.
Anyway, Mom practices shooting and is ready to kill the local police commissioner WHO LIVES NEXT DOOR TO HER BY SHOOTING HIM IN THE WOODS BEHIND THE HOUSES WHERE THEY BOTH LIVE FROM HER KID’S TREE HOUSE. All she has to do is get her face seen at the school talent show and race back home to do the deed. Glen is not going to the talent show because he’s busy – get this – drinking alone while sitting quietly in his living room, despite the fact that Christina is performing in the talent show.
The night of night arrives. Peter invites his dead brother’s doctor to the talent show (Obviously?), and said neurosurgeon now wants to bang Mom (Seriously, dude?), but Mom sneaks out anyway. We’re treated to kids showing their talents, and then, it’s Christina’s turn. PRINCIPLE I NEED PROPER EVIDENCE watches from the wings, and for some reason, Christina’s sad modern dance convinces her to call child services. LIKE, RIGHT NOW. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ACT. SHE STOPS WATCHING CHRISTINA DANCE, LEAVES THE AUDITORIUM, GOES TO HER OFFICE AND CALLS CHILD SERVICES.
Meanwhile, Mom lures Glen to the woods with a whistling sound. Glen IMMEDIATELY GETS HIS GUN AND GOES TO INVESTIGATE. (I’m pretty sure he only goes to get a gun to investigate whistling because the screen writer wants to make it clear that Glen has a gun and if Glen is also armed, not only is the danger increased for Mom, but she also looks like less of a monster as she’s not shooting an defenseless person. So the gun is there for these reasons, not because, you know, it makes any SENSE.) Anyway, before Mom can shoot Glen, she accidentally triggers the tree houses’s Rube Goldberg machine that Henry and Peter were building earlier in the film, which ultimately releases a chain made of photos, one for each of her sons, showing their growth throughout the years. This makes her realize that obeying her eleven year old’s plan to murder someone is something she shouldn’t do and she confronts Glen. Mom says she knows, she’s going to tell everyone and keep fighting this fight until Christina is taken from him. Mom goes back to the talent show in time to see Peter’s act, which is spraying fake snow all over the audience, which he refers to as the releasing of his brother’s soul. Glen goes back inside and calls his brother, but he’s already been notified about the complaint by PRINCIPLE I NEED PROPER EVIDENCE, so he can’t sweep it under the rug. Glen blows his brains out, and since Mom had followed Henry’s plan to forge custody papers, she adopts Christina, who now gets to live next door to the house where she was abused and her step father ultimately committed suicide. THE END.
And I got through all that without talking about the Jesus metaphor.
The people that made this movie decided Henry is some kind of Jesus allegory and it doesn’t quite work. There’s the obvious allusion in the title of the movie, Henry’s untimely death (Which is like Jesus’ how? Oh, because Peter has to carry on his work as a support structure for their Mom? I think you’re missing the point of THAT particular story…), the fact that his brother’s name is Peter and Henry’s soul ascends to heaven at the end of the movie (metaphorically speaking)
The strange thing is, The Book of Henry doesn’t make me care enough to truly angry – the movie has just enough going on to be interesting to the point where you won’t turn it off, but that’s about the best I can say about it. This movie functions more as an educational tool than it does as a movie, because it’s not fun enough to be The Room (child rape and pediatric oncology are NOT FUN) and not engaging enough to be entertaining.
It’s just this movie that is out there, running the gambit of child abuse, pediatric oncology, parenthood, vigilante justice and the exhausted trope of the brilliant preteen. The Book of Henry is… I dunno. A movie that came out in 2017 that you can stream if you’re an HBO subscriber and a student of film or a masochist.