The Book of Henry a clunky ode to Rube Goldberg

Movie Review: The Book of Henry

Naomi Watts leads a stellar cast of young actors in a story with plenty of unlikely turns, a few moments of awe and an awkward thunk that leads somewhere surprising

The Book of Henry


Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow

Running time: 1hr 45 mins

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Book Henry

The Book of Henry: Should have been a book.

By Katherine Monk

Colin Trevorrow was the mad genius behind a wacky little gem from a few years back called Safety Not Guaranteed — a time-travelling comedy that pushed the boundaries of the absurd without feeling gratuitous or overly self-conscious.

From there, he made a T-rex stomp into the Jurassic Park franchise, and now Trevorrow is on deck to write and direct Star Wars: Episode IX. It’s an astonishing career trajectory that began with a humble blend of mystery and mangled ego, as well an undeniable sense of magic thanks to his sense of detail, as well as his childlike sensibility.

The Book of Henry was not written by Trevorrow. This original screenplay, that often feels like it came from a book, was penned by New York Times bestselling crime and comic book author Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X, You’re Next). He wrote it 19 years ago, then retooled it over the years to reflect life lessons learned.

You can sense the evolution. The Book of Henry begins in a decidedly childlike place as we scan the notebooks of a child engineer in the opening credits. Blueprints for Rube Goldberg-styled contraptions fill the pages alongside detailed notes. By the time we meet Henry in the flesh (Jaeden Lieberher), he’s already been established as a child genius who takes care of his single mom (Naomi Watts), as well as his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay).

He’s a serious kid. A true protector. Well-read and something of a peach-faced philosopher, Henry can’t stand injustice. For him, life is still fresh enough to see the crisp outline of absolutes, so when he witnesses his young neighbour subjected to abuse, he feels he must do something.

The rest of the plot unwinds in true Rube Goldberg fashion: Some detailed machinations, a few moments of wonder, and a dramatic thunk that leads to something altogether surprising.

The Goldberg stuff is enchanting. It always is. It’s what put the gas in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and made OK Go’s one-shot video for This Too Shall Pass a viral smash. It’s creative clockwork: Crude tools orchestrated and reimagined to perform random functions.

The Goldberg stuff is enchanting. It always is. It’s what put the gas in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and made OK Go’s one-shot video for This Too Shall Pass a viral smash. It’s creative clockwork: Crude tools orchestrated and reimagined to perform random functions.

Maybe it’s how god sees us. Maybe, in these crazy machines, we see a bit of god in us. In the sheer wonder of just watching all unfold, we recognize how everything is strangely connected, and feel part of something larger.

That’s when it works. The Book of Henry begins with such promise in the cogs and gears of a boy’s mechanical idea of justice, but it starts to unwind somewhere toward the middle as the character focus changes and the mainspring slackens.

Because the story has so many layers, it holds together — only not like a precise mechanical device. The Book of Henry is more like a project in papier mache. Simple and thin, but stuck together carefully and laboriously over time to create a somewhat unexpected, even unreal, structure.

The solid wire framework in this unlikely, and rather long, tale is the performances from the three leads: Watts, Lieberher and Tremblay. They give scenes that could have been formless and sloppy some human bone.

Sarah Silverman offers another fantastic turn as a problem-drinker, this time with a comic edge. The two boys are warmly astounding, and Watts brings the required muscle to keeps things moving through sheer determination, and an unflinching ability to be solid, real — even when the character feels thin. She does this by fusing to everyone in the scene around her, creating magical little moments in the interactions, emitting silent affirmations of some emotion we can all feel.

In The Book of Henry, the central emotion is love, and it’s written large on every page that Hurwitz and Trevorrow turn together. It’s got the best of intentions. Yet, a story that begins inside the mind of a child slowly ends up in a parent’s hands, changing the point-of-view, and scrambling the film.

On the written page, such displacements of stance are easier to process, which is why The Book of Henry may have had an easier time living up to its promise had it taken itself literally.


THE EX-PRESS.COM, June 16, 2017


Review: The Book of Henry

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The Book of Henry: Colin Trevorrow's (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic Park) childlike sensibilities are on full display in this kids’ drama about Henry, a child genius who must teach his childlike mom (Naomi Watts) how to be responsible. The story, written by crime author Greg Hurwitz, takes unlikely turns and often feels unreal but thanks to Watts, a supporting turn from Sarah Silverman and the two boys, Jaeden Lieberher as Henry and Oscar-nominee Jacob Tremblay as little brother Peter, the movie works. It also features several Rube Goldberg-inspired contraptions. And let’s face it, they’re jawbreakers for your eyeballs. -- Katherine Monk

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