The Book of Henry Review: Tonally Illiterate
When the trailer went from child prodigy inventor to single mom with a sniper rifle, The Book of Henry had me intrigued. You’ve got to really lean into that kind of crazy and commit to it, so I had to see for myself. Unfortunately, The Book of Henry does not take the Winter’s Tale approach to insanity so it is not magnificent. Spoiler warning, because like Collateral Beauty, we need to really unpack everything this movie is trying to do.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 11-year-old genius, but he won’t go to a gifted school because he’s so smart he understands the value of interacting with normal kids. Henry pretty much enables his mom Susan (Naomi Watts) to depend on him by running her finances. Then he gets a brain tumor and dies. But, that’s not where her narrative ends and that’s exactly how important the death of an 11-year-old child is to this movie.
But, Henry has one last job to do posthumously. Their neighbor Glenn (Dean Norris) has been abusing his stepdaughter, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), but he’s also the police commissioner so it gets swept under the rug. Henry has left his mom detailed instructions to execute a fool proof plan to kill Glenn and save Christina.
The Book of Henry is more P.S. I Love You than 13 Reasons Why. A child orchestrating a murder from beyond the grave is whimsical and dark. The tone the film wants to strike is straight faced gravitas. It’s not that a wink would sell it better, but some sense of communal “just go with me on this” would be appropriate.
The dialogue is way too direct to be delivered with the gravitas in which it is said. When Henry’s surviving brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) encourages his mom to follow Henry’s plan, Susan says, “We are not murdering the police commissioner and that is final.” That line might usurp “Must be weird not having anybody come on you” as the most abrupt and blunt line in cinema history.
Leaning into the absurdity would make it a celebration of the dark possibilities of a child’s imagination. Playing it straight takes you out of the movie because wonder, “Wait, do actually think this is a good idea?” Hey, maybe that is what screenwriter Greg Hurwitz meant, or what director Colin Trevorrow means. If so, then having both Henry and Peter talk like movie kids undermines any chance at taking their exploits seriously. In real life, geniuses can be lovingly awkward and inarticulate. Only in movies do they talk in catch phrases.
Henry says violence is not the worst thing in the world. Know what he thinks is the worst thing? Apathy. He self-diagnosis his own tumor, and Susan’s friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman)’s alcoholism. When Sheila visits him in the hospital, Henry explains why teasing a girl you like works. He’s talking about negging, so basically Henry is sarging.
If Henry is speaking to the intellect on the nose, Peter has the cloying emotion covered. He tells Susan, “Don’t talk to me like that.” Like what? “Like a child.” Aww, a child asking to be treated like an adult, but underlining his thesis for dramatic effect.
Some of the plot basics just don’t work. Like Susan luring Glenn out of his house is just ridiculous. Scenes of the school talent show emphasizing the innocence of the ordinary children are too treacly to be moving.
Listen, if your 11-year-old is a child prodigy, by all means let him invest your money. Maybe don’t be so needy and dependent on him emotionally. You’ve still got to teach him to let others be self-sufficient. Grief makes us all not ourselves, but embracing this as the manifestation of grief needs to be as extreme in execution as it is in concept.