Exploiting our Archives: My World of Flops Case File #102 The Book of Henry
When people feel like they absolutely MUST see a movie it’s usually because it’s supposed to be great. When I feel like I absolutely MUST see a movie, in sharp contrast, it’s almost invariably because it’s egregiously, flamboyantly, spectacularly awful, a goddamn boondoggle for the ages.
So while I still have not seen Sorry to Bother You despite the rave reviews it has received and my deep, abiding love for Boots Riley and the Coup, one of my all-time favorite acts, I have just realized my professional and existential destiny by watching and now writing about Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry for My World of Flops.
Some bad movies you’re asked to defend or apologize for. The Book of Henry, on the other hand, is the kind of movie you’re asked to atone for. Accordingly, Trevorrow was at one point tapped to co-write and direct the ninth Star Wars movie. Trevorrow ostensibly parted ways with Disney over creative differences, but I like to think that even in a sick, sad, half-mad world where Donald Trump is President the universe stubbornly refused to reward the man who made The Book of Henry by giving him hundreds of millions of dollars to make a billion dollar movie pretty much everyone would see, whether they wanted to or not. Except, of course, that Trevorrow is being rewarded for the lazy sub-mediocrity of his Jurassic World with an opportunity to direct the next movie in the series, which, alas, is a billion dollar movie costing hundreds of millions of dollars that everyone will see, whether they want to or not. Long live the American meritocracy!
I’ve neglected My World of Flops over the past couple of months but I had to bring it back for The Book of Henry because while I write many, many columns devoted to terrible movies, The Book of Henry poignantly and hilariously embodies what this column is all about. If Trevorrow had more self-awareness he would have sent me a screener for the film in a package with the words “For Your Consideration” on it because while there was a zero percent chance of The Book of Henry winning Oscars, there was a roughly one hundred percent chance that The Book of Henry would be covered in My World of Flops.
The Book of Henry is a film of lunatic ambition, a morbidly fascinating, regrettably original trainwreck that invariably makes the wrongest, craziest choice, and then commits to it with absolute conviction, beginning with its delusional certainty that when it comes to cinematic precocity, no amount can ever possibly be enough, let alone too much.
Wil Wheaton should send Trevorrow and screenwriter Greg Hurtwitz flowers because thanks to them, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wesley Crusher is no longer the poster boy and gold standard for insufferably precocious know-it-all brats audiences are supposed to like and admire, if not worship and revere, yet inspire vitriolic contempt, even seething hatred, rather than affection.
That dubious title now belongs to Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher), who is a pint-sized cross between Rube Goldberg, Warren Buffet and a less sadistic version of Jigsaw from the Saw motion pictures. We’re introduced to Henry when he gives a presentation on “My Legacy”, that begins, “We can all talk about making our mark but isn’t it all just comfort food to stave off an existential crisis?”
Instead of telling the obnoxious little bastard that he really needs to get the fuck over himself, Henry’s teacher looks on adoringly, proud to be in the presence of such a radiant, magnificent creature. When she asks him why he wastes his Nobel-level intellect matriculating in a regular school, Henry replies, “Because It’s better for my psycho-social development for me to interact with a peer group at a normal school.”
Verily, like Jesus among us sinners, Henry is humble enough to move among the common people instead of taking his rightful place as a God among men. He’s also the most aggravatingly mature human being in existence. When his mother rhetorically inquires, “Find me another male of the species who is as grown up as (Henry)” she’s not being hyperbolic. Judging by The Book of Henry, he’s not just the most mature child alive; he’s also more mature than literally every senior citizen in the world as well.
Despite being 11 years old, Henry pays his family’s bills, is the primary breadwinner and regularly lectures mother Susan (Naomi Watts) on finances, maturity and her friends in ways that are supposed to be a cute reversal of the unusual dynamic but instead come across as creepy and weird, paternalistic and nakedly sexist.
The roles are reversed in the Carpenter household. Henry is the perfect son, surrogate husband/partner, provider, bookkeeper and father figure all wrapped up in one oppressively precious, precocious package. He’s more than a father figure to his own mother. He’s more like a grandfather figure.
Henry blesses the unworthy, non-comprehending hordes at elementary school with his presence and insight, makes a small fortune on the stock market and treats his mother like a loser friend who is fundamentally good-hearted and well-intentioned but will never get their shit together and consequently must be treated with benign condescension.
Susan, in sharp contrast, works as a waitress at a greasy spoon despite never having to work another day in her life thanks to her son’s investments, drinks too much with a tart-tongued waitress coworker played by Sarah Silverman and wastes her time playing video games.
In other words, the mom is the child and the son is the parent. That’s not terribly unusual in chaotic households but this is patriarchy taken to the next level, a version of patriarchy that posits that women shouldn’t just be subordinate and deferential to their husbands, because their husbands know more and make more than them, but to their sons as well, particularly if those sons seemingly perform every role a husband would outside of sex.
But Henry has more to worry about than having to raise and parent his silly, sloppy, intellectually and morally inferior mother. Being a Sherlock Holmes-level crime solver on top of everything else, Henry ascertains that the beautiful dancer next door is being molested by Glenn Sickleman, an evil stepfather played by Dean Norris. We can tell that the police commissioner is a sick man because Henry angrily informs us so, and Henry is never wrong about anything, but also because his last name is literally only two letters away from actually being Sickman. Subtle, this is not.
Vibrating with righteous fury, Henry busts into the office of his elementary school’s black, female principal, refers to her as “Janice” and angrily demands that she use her power as school principal to get Norris’ character arrested. Otherwise, he insists, she’s not living up to her “ethical responsibilities as an educator.”
When the Principal has the unmitigated gall and audacity to not treat the angry 11 year old boy talking down to her with the reverence he angrily demands, he snottily insists, “Don’t condescend to me!”
Considering that Henry spends his time onscreen looking down on humanity as something gross he stepped in, that line reverberates with unintended irony. Henry may be smarter than Einstein. He may know more money than Alan Greenspan. He may be more compassionate and empathetic than Jesus. But he, astonishingly enough, is not immortal. In fact, he’s probably too pure and too good to live. A world as dirty and debased and as filled with silly women needing to be saved as ours is unworthy of a figure as great as Henry, whose last name might just be a reference to a carpenter back in Israel long ago who was almost as God-like as our Henry.
If Donald Trump were every bit as smart and accomplished and amazing as he likes to think he is, he’d still only be one hundredth as impressive as Henry is here. Who doesn’t love a gratingly precocious eleven-year-old know-it-all who keeps mansplaining even after he dies?
Henry has a fatal tumor in his otherwise perfect brain. I half-expected Henry to be able to perform brain surgery on himself successfully but The Book of Henry is a tragedy, as well as an unintentional comedy, so not even a world-class intellect like Henry is able to do anything about his unfortunate condition.
I was hoping they would give Arnold Schwarzenegger a cameo as the doctor who solemnly informs Henry, “It’s a tumor.” but this is not a movie with a sense of humor about itself.
Now I’m not saying that The Book of Henry did not work for me emotionally but the greatest joy and meaning in my life comes from being the father of two wonderful boys and I spent the first half of The Book of Henry rooting for the death of a child and the second half being overjoyed that he’s dead.
An impossibly “heroic” child character’s early death should not be a crowd-pleasing moment. But boy oh boy was I excited when that condescending, sexist, superior little asshole bites the big one and joins his maker in the deepest bowels of hell. Does Henry deserve to die, and then be tortured in hell for eternity for being annoying? This might sound harsh, but I think so.
Even in death, Henry is overbearing and bossy, however. For it seems our ambitious and focused dead friend kicked the bucket with unfinished business. He very much needs to murder the next door neighbor to keep him from molesting his fetching stepdaughter and he’s unfortunately a little too dead to do so himself.
Thankfully, he has a mother who just doesn’t know what to do with herself now that her son is no longer around to tell her what to do and how to act. So Henry decides to help his mother work through her grief through righteous, cathartic murder by giving her a meticulous, methodical, step-by-step plan on how to murder the police commissioner without getting caught in the form of the titular book. Forget learning to love yourself: giving your mother the tools to effectively commit murder truly is the greatest love of all.
It is and isn’t too bad that Henry dies so young. Judging by the film, had he lived he would have become a production designer on Wes Anderson films, the world’s first ever American President/Brain Surgeon/Rocket Scientist/Chairman of the Federal Reserve/Best-Selling Author or a Batman/Punisher type vigilante who thinks he’s above the law because he’s better than everyone else.
Henry has a strong moral compass that tells him that the bad people need to be punished for being bad, and that the best way to punish those bad people is by using your mother as a human weapon to help you kill the bad people from beyond the grave. This, to the film, seems like a bold and principled stance. Instead it feels like Fascism for children, with a kooky, precious Rube Goldberg twist.
Trevorrow has defended The Book of Henry as a precursor to the #Metoo movement, arguing laughably, "I mean, I made a film about holding predatory men in positions of power accountable for assault, and that is an uncomfortable subject to talk about. But we are talking about it now and we’re listening and I hope the negative response won’t deter other filmmakers from telling these stories, because we need to hear them, both in life and in art.”
It is true that The Book of Henry is about holding predatory men in positions of power accountable for assault but I’m not sure we have much to learn from a juvenile fantasy where all of our problems are solved by a beautiful, magical dead boy child so impossibly, irritatingly brilliant that, if anything, he’s somehow even more canny and effective in death than he was in life.
Delusional and puffed full of unearned self-importance to the bitter end, The Book of Henry closes with Henry lecturing, “Sometimes a good story will remind you of who you want to be” and that is ultimately why we are inundated with “stories about good and evil, stories about the triumph of the human spirit, stories about living and dying and how you’ve got to do one in spite of the other.”
The Book of Henry wasn’t about to wait for others to affirm its greatness and importance. No, it pretty much closes by delivering an Oscar speech about the “profound” and “archetypal” and “important” elements at play in a story it clearly believes is about the loftiest, most important subjects imaginable.
The Book of Henry is a terrible movie that thinks it’s a profound masterpiece about the human condition and the world we live in that couldn’t be further from reality if the characters were all Snorks or Wizards or Noids. It’s one for the ages, and I do not mean that in a good way.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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