‘One for them, one for me.” That’s the credo of the actor or director trying to keep integrity intact amid lucrative but soulless opportunities. Today’s passion project justifies tomorrow’s franchise installment, which pays for that art film you always wanted to do, and then it’s time to jump back on the commercial train, and after 20 years, if all goes well, you have lots of money and a corpus creditable enough to make your film-school self feel proud.
Sometimes, of course, it becomes “ten for them to pay my alimony and rehab bills and private-island costs and gambling debts . . .” That’s how you end up with a career like Johnny Depp’s, lashed to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise like a mariner aboard the Flying Dutchman, or the “I’ll go anywhere, play anyone, do anything, just pay me” IMDb page of Nicolas Cage.
But let’s not get too negative too soon. Our subject here is Colin Trevorrow, a director whose career is still squarely in the optimistic, idealistic phase: He made a shaggy little time-travel movie called “Safety Not Guaranteed” that people liked, got tapped to direct Jurassic World, did a creditable job and earned the studio a few jillion dollars, and now is on deck to direct Star Wars IX: The One Where We’ll Have a Computer-Generated Princess Leia, dropping sometime in 2019. Which means he had time to fit in a “one for me” between the dinosaurs and Jedi, and it’s arrived this month, offering some modest counterprogramming to Cars 3 and The Mummy and, of course, Pirates of the Caribbean: We Know You Don’t Even Read These Subtitles Anymore.
The movie is called “The Book of Henry,” and it is not, unfortunately, particularly good. But the usual metrics of good and bad might not be that useful to evaluate what Trevorrow has come up with here, since the most distinctive thing about his passion project is that the story is completely bonkers.
A few issues back, I remarked that the Alien franchise under Ridley Scott increasingly felt like a mash-up of several different kinds of stories (body horror plus Chariots of the Gods plus AI awakening), impressively ambitious but also a little much. The Book of Henry is like that, except with slightly more earthbound genres. You think it’s going to be a “single mom, genius kid” movie, or maybe a caper film about precocious kids defeating malign adults. Then it becomes a terminal-illness tearjerker — but midway through, not at the end, because the terminal illness is just a path to the crazy “suburban mom as assassin” that it has waiting at the climax.
The Henry of the title, played by Jaeden Lieberher as an old soul, is the brilliant pre-teen son of Susan (Naomi Watts), who’s been raising him and his brother (Jacob Tremblay) since their father split. She drives an ancient Volvo and works alongside a brassy pal played by Sarah Silverman, with tattoos and cleavage showing, at their local diner in some autumnal Small Town, U.S.A. So you assume that she’s just scraping along . . . but no, in fact, she waits tables and drives a rattletrap for the principle of the thing, while Henry spends hours making calls from a phone booth (the last one in existence, apparently, since the movie is set in the world of MacBooks) to his stockbroker, keeping tabs on the fortune that his otherworldly acumen has built for them.
That twist is a little striking, but it’s as nothing compared with what’s coming: There’s the neighbor girl (Maddie Ziegler), who lives next door with her stepfather (Dean Norris), a man whose villainy is first established by his demand that Susan rake her leaves instead of letting them blow onto his property and then by the fact that he abuses his ward in ways that Henry can observe simply by looking from his bedroom window into hers. But these crimes can’t be dealt with by law enforcement, because the stepfather is a cop, his brother runs the local child-abuse help service, and the local principal, while sympathetic, doesn’t feel she has the evidence to act. So it’s up to Henry and his brother to put a stop to the abuse, perhaps using some of the mechanical inventions that Henry specializes in, which he builds in a workshop-treehouse that looks like it belongs in a steampunk Hobbiton.
But before they can get very far, a brain tumor intervenes, delivering Watts a potential love interest in the form of Henry’s handsome neurosurgeon (Lee Pace), but also making it impossible for Henry himself to be active in the world. So his mother has to do God’s work for him, which means — I kid you not — acquiring a high-powered sniper rifle, dressing her trim, Wattsian form in badass black, and following Henry’s instructions via tape recorder (again, presumably the last one in existence) as he walks her through his airtight assassination plot.
Again, the movie is not good. The characters are mostly cutouts, the dialogue is subordinate to plot mechanics, the jokes barely turn the corner of your mouth, and the tearjerking scenes left my eyes dry.
But if it isn’t worth paying for in theaters, it’s worth checking out if it pops up on your TV some afternoon, simply to honor and appreciate its total commitment to insane plot dynamics. In an age of recycled and rebooted properties, the same stories told time and again, Trevorrow clearly wanted to make something quite unlike other movies, something that’s willing to risk ridiculousness to defy your expectations. In that much, he succeeded.