Gregg Hurwitz, the screenwriter behind “The Book of Henry,” is a writer of crime novels and thrillers. For this movie, Hurwitz has overlaid a dubious sort of vigilante-like thriller plot on top of a family comedy-drama, and this is a shame, because the family story is often the richer of the two.
The opening credits — which are set to a gentle piano-based score by Michael Giacchino — show us intricate drawings in a book, and this seems to be the set-up for a film aimed at children. “People are decent mostly,” says young Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) on the soundtrack as he shepherds his vulnerable brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) onto a school bus. Henry is responsible for protecting Peter, who often gets bullied, and he sees himself as a protector in general.
As he makes a presentation for his school class, we can see that 11-year-old Henry is a precocious semi-adult who uses words like “existential” as if he knows their exact spelling, meaning and history. His smarts also extend to the business world, which means that he has socked away a considerable amount of money for his feckless mother Susan (Naomi Watts), who works as a waitress and plays violent video games to let off steam.
Henry’s protectiveness of his brother and mother also extends to a pretty young girl at school named Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who lives next door and has an intimidating stepfather named Glenn (Dean Norris). One night, Henry looks out the window and sees Christina in her room and Glenn enter. Based on Henry’s reaction, we can sense that something bad has happened to his friend, though director Colin Trevorrow does not show it to us very clearly.
While all this is going on, there are scenes between Susan and her waitress friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman) that seem to come from another movie entirely. Sheila is the sort of wisecracker who says things like, “Hey toots, how’s tricks?” in an ironic manner. She and Henry have a playfully antagonistic relationship, and Silverman does an entertaining short drunk scene with Watts that makes us question just where this movie is heading.
Lieberher somehow manages to sell a role that could easily seem very contrived, and both Trevorrow and Watts gutsily navigate some very sharp shifts in tone. The situation of a mother relying on her mature son for everything could be played for either comedy or drama, and Watts somehow finds a middle ground that leads her into some rich emotional areas, especially when she sings a song to her two boys before they go to bed.
About 45 minutes into the running time, “The Book of Henry” suddenly becomes an unabashed tearjerker, and both Watts and Silverman have some outstanding moments. Silverman in particular gets a lot of mileage from a scene where she reconciles with Henry and very sweetly kisses him full on the mouth. It seems like her character is trying to reach out to this young boy in the only way she knows how, and this feels both touching and slightly disturbing.
But then the thriller plot kicks in again, and that’s when this movie totally falls apart. Watts’ Susan finds herself looking out the window and reacting to whatever is happening to Christina, which we still don’t see on screen. It is probably a job for a psychiatrist to figure out just why Hurwitz felt the need to construct a damsel-in-distress story that is conducted by proxy by an immature mother who is having all of her actions dictated by her young son. (Is this maybe the ultimate male fantasy of control and domination of both mother and love object?)
“The Book of Henry” collapses into unintentional comedy when a ballet recital from Christina is cross cut with Susan trying to intimidate the girl’s glowering stepfather, and then things really get laughably inane when a school principal (played by theater star Tonya Pinkins) suddenly realizes that something is wrong purely because of Christina’s sad ballerina emoting.
The really sad thing is that this is a movie with some intriguing characters that has some real comic and dramatic potential, but all this gets lost in increasingly silly plot mechanics.