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‘The Book of Henry’ Is a Bad Bad Movie

In the hands of director Colin Trevorrow, a ridiculous plot ripe for melodrama is somehow an unenjoyable bore

(Focus Features/Ringer illustration)
(Focus Features/Ringer illustration)

All week, The Ringer will be celebrating Good Bad Movies, those films that are so terrible they’re endlessly amusing and — dare we say it? — actually good. Please join us as we give the over-the-top action movies, low-budget romance thrillers, and peak 80s cheese-fests the spotlight they deserve.

This post contains spoilers for the film The Book of Henry.

Every bad movie has its fans.

Take, for example, Colin Trevorrow’s maligned The Book of Henry, released last Friday. It’s the director’s first film since helming the megahit Jurassic World. His next film is set to be Star Wars: Episode IX, which is probably the only reason anyone is talking about Henry. It’s bad in a way that doesn’t merit much discussion on its own terms: It’s boring. A few people like it, regardless, which I know because Trevorrow, who seems overly aware of his movie’s critical reception, has retweeted seemingly every single scrap of praise thrown his way over the last week. "You should become a film critic (ideally within the next 24 hours)," he responded to one fan. A couple of days later, his Twitter feed tilted into outright pathos. "Be proud of everything you paint," he tweeted, "even if Mom doesn’t put it on the fridge."

The chance to concern-troll the career of Trevorrow — who is now, for many, emblematic of men’s ability to fail upward — is apparently too good to resist. The idea that Trevorrow might get his Star Wars card revoked has critics frothing at the mouth. That’s particularly in light of the success of Wonder Woman, which, for its flaws, is better than any movie Trevorrow has made to date, amply proving how few excuses there are for Hollywood to continue hiring mediocre men over talented women. "Could The Book of Henry’s Critical Drubbing Really Affect Colin Trevorrow’s Star Wars Gig?" asked Vulture recently. Better question: After Force Awakens and Rogue One, would a bad Star Wars movie really be against trend? Never mind, let’s not go there. For now.

On paper, The Book of Henry, directed from a 20-year-old script written by the crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz, sounds ridiculous. In movie terms, that should be synonymous with "delicious," or at least "interesting" — see also Basic Instinct, which is as ridiculous as it gets, and only too eager to delight in that fact, and show it off, even. I don’t love "good bad movie" as a distinction; too often, the "bad" is merely the thing that most unabashedly announces "THIS IS A MOVIE!" and we object to it only out of a misguided sense of good taste. But there is absolutely a category of bad movie that is somehow good or enjoyable despite itself. The Book of Henry is not that kind of movie. But I can see how it might have been.

Susan Carpenter, a single mother of two played by Naomi Watts, loses Henry, her gifted 11-year-old son, to a brain tumor. That would be tragic enough, but before he died, Henry discovered that his next door neighbor and schoolyard crush, Christina, is being abused by her police commissioner stepfather. When he dies, Henry leaves behind a notebook full of detailed instructions meant for his mother. The plan: kill Christina’s stepdad. In an audio diary, he convinces his mom to cash in some of her handsome alimony and get a new car, buy a fancy sniper rifle, and teach herself how to shoot her neighbor.

Another day, another woman protagonist who can’t self-actualize until her kid dies. It may as well be George Clooney’s voice on those audio diaries; Naomi Watts may as well be untethered in space. But then, Gravity is a Good Bad Movie: Its dialogue is so asinine it makes me want to unlearn language, but its sense of carnage is, at the very least, agreeably reckless. The Book of Henry, a bad bad movie, has a different problem. It’s a crazed crime melodrama directed by someone who doesn’t realize what a weird movie he has on his hands. Strip it down, and what you have is the story of a grieving mother getting drawn into a fantastical revenge plot devised by her dead preteen son. That’s the stuff great melodramas are made of: a story that makes absolute emotional sense and feels slightly unharnessed from everyday logic. It’s hard to imagine a good-bad version of that, really. It’s either going to be good or bad; we’re either going to buy it, or we’re not. There’s a fine line between well-tuned melodrama and schlocky bullshit — too fine for Trevorrow to comfortably straddle the fence.

There was a chance, here, to make a weird, uncomfortable, passionate movie about grief — or just a fucked-up genre movie starring Naomi Watts. Something with more of a perspective on the material, is the idea. Trevorrow simply plays it all way too straight. This movie is a chance to see what he’s like without the franchise overlords of Jurassic World or Star Wars to manage him, which makes The Book of Henry a useful curiosity, if nothing else. Trevorrow goes for the easy tears, which is too bad, in this case. Nothing about a story like this should feel easy.