Hardly a Page-Turner

The Book of Henry, Colin Trevorrow's follow-up to Jurassic World, is almost fascinatingly awful

click to enlarge If Wes Anderson totally sucked, he'd probably make something like The Book of Henry.
If Wes Anderson totally sucked, he'd probably make something like The Book of Henry.

Sometimes you see a movie that's so bad, so confounding, so thoroughly misguided in every way, you almost want to recommend it to people, simply because they'll never see anything quite like it.

The Book of Henry is a movie like that.

It takes place in a picturesque hamlet in upstate New York, where the characters live on a sprawling tract of land with an elaborate treehouse that only a Hollywood production designer could afford, and where Naomi Watts works in a cutesy corner diner with a brassy waitress (Sarah Silverman) who calls her customers "toots." Believe it or not, it's set in the present day.

This is the kind of world that's not aiming for realism; the town could just as conceivably been the Land of Oz. So when the film swerves abruptly into out-of-left-field, grown-up plot devices — child molestation, alcoholism, brain tumors — we experience tonal whiplash. The Book of Henry's desire to explore dark, complex themes while also indulging in manipulative melodrama would probably be offensive were it not told so incompetently.

It's at least anchored by good performances, especially from Watts, who plays a single mother to two young sons — the child genius Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special) and the more naive Peter (Jacob Tremblay, Room). Henry is precocious in a way that no kid in the history of the universe has ever been precocious. He trades stock tips after school (on a pay phone, for some reason). He calls the principal by her first name. He pays his mother's bills while she plays Xbox every night. He carries around such quirky accessories as a mini tape recorder and a Polaroid camera. He's so perfect in every way, you almost expect the film to reveal that he has superpowers.

Although maybe he does, because Henry soon discovers that the little girl who lives next door is being abused by her police chief stepfather (Dean Norris), and he devises a harebrained plan to rescue her.

I can't explain what happens next without spoiling the plot, but it hurtles toward absurdity and grows dangerously unhinged. All I'll say is that the second half of the film involves an unexpected death, backroom arms dealing, police corruption, a handsome neurosurgeon and a talent show. There's also a sequence in which Watts breathlessly assembles a sniper rifle, and it's intercut with footage of little girls tap dancing. It's mind-boggling.

The Book of Henry is the third feature from director Colin Trevorrow, who debuted with the lo-fi comedy Safety Not Guaranteed and followed it up with the bloated Jurassic World. His approach in the film's earlier scenes is almost violently cuddly, and then he treats its darker subplots with the solemnity and intensity of a Bourne movie. He's been done no favors by Gregg Hurwitz's laughable screenplay, which has reportedly been kicking around Hollywood for a couple of decades (ah, that explains the pay phone). You'd think that would have been plenty of time to simply rewrite the entire thing.

It's nearly impossible, though, to imagine anyone putting these disparate pieces together in a convincing way. As the movie reached its ludicrous finale, I sat there in awe, wondering how in the hell we had ended up there. I would say The Book of Henry must be seen to be believed, but I don't want to encourage masochism. ♦