The Book of Henry

This image released by Focus Features shows Jacob Tremblay, from left, Jaeden Lieberher and Naomi Watts in a scene from "The Book of Henry." (Alison Cohen Rosa/Focus Features via AP) ORG XMIT: NYET121

The Book of Henry is about a boy, his mom, his little brother and the girl next door. That’s what Henry says (Jaeden Lieberher) through voiceover narration, but only at the end of the film.

There’s no purpose to such a contrived line other than screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz (a comic book and crime novel writer) and Colin Trevorrow (director of the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX) believing that their audience is stupid. The film’s premise is even dumber: Henry’s mother Susan (Naomi Watts) plans to kill child abusing neighbour Glenn (Dean Norris) through a methodically planned sniper mission that her 11-year-old genius son laid out through comprehensive notes and voice memos.

But wait, isn’t this supposed to be a feel good family drama? The look and feel sure spell it out: Henry’s treehouse looks like something out of a Roald Dahl novel, chockfull of Rube Goldberg contraptions, intended to endear us to the world-weary 11-year-old; the younger, bespectacled adorable brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) needs Henry’s help from school bullies; their mom’s corny bedtime routine features a lullaby and toy ukulele. But Hurwitz and Trevorrow don’t have the patience for a single genre, so they mash up a variety that includes traumatic medical drama and a taking-justice-into-your-own-hands thriller. Such Frankenstein movie magic leads to a tone-deaf, ghoulish, campy and overwrought film.

The film makes no sense. Henry is the adult of the house, managing the finances, while Susan blows off steam from her waitressing job through video games and carousing with her floozy co-worker (Sarah Silverman, working far below what she deserves, but then again, the same goes for everyone cast in this movie). If that’s slightly believable, Henry’s stock trading acumen that has resulted in $700,000 in a bank account, is not. Susan shrugs off Henry’s practical suggestions to quit or buy a new car for no reason, making her sound silly, yet we somehow are to believe she can carry out murder.

Would it kill the screenwriter to maybe flesh out a character past the nanosecond devoted to each story element? Hurwitz and Trevorrow don’t have such patience, though, they’ve already fast-forwarded to the traumatizing medical issue that lands a huge bomb in the middle of the movie, tonally shifting it with the abruptness of an earthquake. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say it accomplishes little more than giving Susan a reason to start “adulting” again and gives Lee Pace a useless role as a handsome doctor to suggest what this movie might have been if Hurwitz and Trevorrow liked rom-coms.

About Henry’s murder plan, by the way; his titular book, which plots out every conceivable detail, also includes rationales on why killing Glenn, a well-respected community man, is the only way to save Christina. Yet Henry’s efforts to expose the abuse are half-assed at best. He never once tries asking an adult like Susan to voice the complaint, for example. Getting away with murder, the film suggests, is easier than reporting child abuse.

The film’s convenient ending confirms that The Book of Henry is uninterested in exploring the idea that powerful men can be infallible. In fact, there are no ideas at all here, just one contrived plot element set up to trigger another. Think of The Book of Henry as a broken Rube Goldberg machine — all the cutesy steampunk doo-dads are for naught without proper planning to make it function.

Originally published in The National Post (June 15, 2017).