Friday, June 16, 2017

Write and Wrong: THE BOOK OF HENRY

Now three films into his career, it’s safe to say the defining feature of a Colin Trevorrow picture is an unfamiliarity with actual human behavior. With irritating high-concept indie dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed and thunderously tone-deaf Jurassic World, he exhibited both basic competency behind the camera and a total lack of understanding as to how any consistent or recognizable human characteristics might develop in front of it. This led to some painful movies, potentially fun scenarios completely undermined and undone by a feeling like they’re movies made by someone only aware of other movies, endless regurgitations of tropes and ideas (and problematic perspectives) from better inspirations with no concept of why they were evocative in the first place. But his latest, The Book of Henry, takes such painful artificiality to new heights that I couldn’t help but admire its oddball overflowing grab bag of sentimentality, manipulation, and unpredictability. It got me. This might not be a good movie, dripping as it is in knockoff Amblin 80’s polish and driven by characters and decisions that strain credulity at many turns. But I found it to be an entertaining and involving one. It’s all of a piece. Here Trevorrow is making a strange B-movie, but hardly seems to know it, so smothers it in A-level, high-gloss mushiness, feel-good soppiness, and mechanical tear-jerking. This very tension, combined with the plot’s unpredictability, had me invested in discovering what could possibly happen next. 

As it begins, introducing a precocious 11-year-old (Jaeden Lieberher), the movie looks to be setting up a Very Special Kid narrative. He delivers a wordy extemporaneous paragraph in class, to which his teacher says in a transparently expository way, “Remind me again why we can’t put you in a gifted school?” Never mind that he doesn’t appear to be too terribly advanced for his grade level, he’s coded as brilliant. He helps his single mom (Naomi Watts) keep track of her finances. (They have no money problems despite her part-time waitressing job, with only tossed off references to stocks to explain it away.) He makes Rube Goldberg inventions. He reads incessantly. He indulges in some child’s play with his adorable little brother (Jacob Tremblay). He has a crush on the withdrawn, mostly silent dancer next door (Maddie Ziegler), and banters with his mom’s sarcastic alcoholic co-worker (Sarah Silverman). It treats him as unbelievably intelligent and persuasive, but at least the movie knows enough to make its ultimate plot resolution hinge on a key character reminding herself that no matter how brilliant an 11-year-old may be, that child should not be making life-and-death decisions for adults. 

All seems quirky family film well, but then the movie shifts into darker territory as the boy Rear Window-style spies a neighbor (Dean Norris) do something truly terrible. He secretly starts planning a way to take the man down. See what I mean by a B-movie in disguise lurking under the twinkling Michael Giacchino score and John Schwartzman’s crisp autumnal cinematography? Watch it with the sound off and you’d think you were watching a high-budget Hallmark card, not a pint-sized revenge-by-proxy movie. That’d be enough for some features, but the screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz (a thriller novelist in his feature debut) piles on more: a sudden disease diagnosis, a mild Psycho protagonist shift, a mysterious notebook, an elaborate posthumous plan, and a procession of sequences that, if you squint a little, make Movie Logic sense, but leave little room for how actual humans would process them. Characters instead cohere as collections of plot needs and design details. There’s heightened cloying button-pushing happening, with teary-eyed close-ups and dramatic flourishes built out of raw emotions used as phony grist for turning the gears of a treacly family drama with disturbing content kept slyly aloft from their full impacts.

Why, then, did it work for me? I chalk it up to the consummate professionalism on display by the craftspeople – this is one handsome movie – and the actors – Watts’ maternal warmth, Tremblay’s sympathetic cuteness, Norris’ subtle menacing gravity. They manage to hold it together, finding emotional continuity despite the plot’s best efforts. Its story lurches, but the tone doesn’t falter, like everyone involved had no idea how odd it is. I didn’t stop to ask questions, because I was pulled along by the movie’s heartfelt artificiality and was engaged by the likable performers who must be good, because I only noted the frayed edges and logical leaps to pull apart after the fact. I was in the moment. The movie stumbles and strains, but strides so confidently through its twists and turns and straight-faced improbabilities that I couldn’t help but be charmed by its very existence. As unlikely as it grows – each development more so than the last, right up to a climax intercutting a school talent show with, on the other side of town, a stalking sniper – I was entertained. It’s so blatantly artificial and earnestly manipulative, I didn’t mind going along.

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