The Book of Insanity
Holy fucking hell. I don’t think I’ve experienced something like this in a long time. A film that was lovingly made with the best of intentions, but have it made with a story that ups the ante on how goddamn insane it gets. You may not believe that a film as innocent looking as the poster you see above deserves such foul language, but do keep in mind that my profanity tongue gets far less controllable when I witness something truly abominable. How could this happen? Especially from Colin Trevorrow, director of the successful (?) Jurassic World and the upcoming director to Star Wars Episode IX, how could a successful director like this fall so hard? I’m not going to lie, it’ll be difficult without diving into spoilers, but as before I sacrifice my sanity for your depraved enjoyment. You sick, sick fucks.
The titular character, Henry (Jaden Lieberher) is a precocious (read: genius level intellect) 11-year-old who lives a blissful life his younger brother, (Jacob Tremblay from Room) and their single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts). Henry dazzles his school with his high intelligence and maturity of a man in his thirties, while basically handles day trading to support his family. His mother meanwhile relaxes as a waitress and plays videogames on most of her free time. Well, this sounds interesting Chris, how bad can it get from here? But this routine is upended when Henry realizes that his crush and next door neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being sexually abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). Uhh, that’s a change of pace…but surely there is a family drama in this film to resolve this crisis.
You’re close reader, Henry decides to deal with the situation personally and having exhausted all possible remedies, our 5th grade hero decides the next best course of action is to assassinate Glenn, who just so happens to be the police commissioner. Wait, what? However something terrible (read: melodramatic as fuck) happens and Henry is forced to detail this insane plan in his little book so that his dear, not very bright mother has to do the dirty deed in order to save Christina. …FUCKING WHAT?!
Oh you thought I was exaggerating? This shit goes crazy seven ways from Sunday and I haven’t even discussed how insane this roller coaster of tonal dissonance goes. I think people were overly critical of Trevorrow’s previous tone issues in Jurassic World, because he was sticking at least to the genre of action adventure with scary monsters (even if there was that frankly psychotic scene of a random, personality-less woman dying horribly and as agonizingly as possible). And I think people will re-evaluate their opinions of that film, because The Book of Henry has a tone problem like a motherfucker. This shit went from The Goonies to Manchester by the Sea to goddamn Jason Bourne before juggling some Home Alone in the finale for good measure.
As I stated earlier this week in The Mummy (2017) review, my issue with shifting tones is not because I want a flat line in my films; it’s that I want them to make sense, to have a purpose. I don’t know what the hell Trevorrow was thinking in trying to juggle a whimsical comedy, a Lifetime drama, and a plot point straight out of the The Accountant. Now some people overly concerned that this surely must be the screenwriter’s fault, and that Trevorrow was just dealt a bad hand he had to work with (possibly to assuage their fears that Star Wars Episode IX will turn out all right). However, this script has been in development hell since freaking 1999, and Trevorrow SPECIFICALLY wanted to make this his next project right after Jurassic World. Perhaps the shifting tones of this bizarre story is what attracted him so much to the script, but this film highlights he’s just not that great of a director to wrangle this project into something of quality.
I’m not saying that a whimsical, quirky comedy can’t mix well with high melodrama, it’s just that it really only works well in doses and usually towards the end of a film. Think something like Bridge to Terabithia or My Girl in which a tragic twist occurs to rob a puppy love romance of any closure, but the survivor lives on to become a better person. However, the tragic twist in The Book of Henry occurs about 25 minutes in, and the film just keeps stacking the deck in terms of tragedy that it turns out to be downright comical. At the same time, you as an audience member quickly realize how blatantly you’re being manipulated to become sad.
I’ve ragged on disgusting films like Passengers and Collateral Beauty before for their terrible attempts at trying to get an emotional rise out of the audience; but please be aware that I’m not critiquing these films for trying to be dramatic. I’ve cried plenty in films like Room and A Monster Calls because they developed characters I cared deeply about, and I felt their emotional pain even though none of these are actually real people. Film is an art form that is all about manipulating its audience into feeling a certain way, whether it is to laugh, to cry, to cringe in terror, or to get excited. But I slag films that are so obvious telegraphing to me how to feel as it fails miserably to give me characters to give a microgram of a shit to care about.
Take Christina, for instance, because I swear she had a grand total of maybe 11 lines in the entire film and she is supposed to be victim of grave abuse at the hands of her stepfather. We don’t get to know anything about her, we have no conversations with her, and all of the characters seem to show sympathy for her entirely because of her situation. Thank God we don’t actually see her getting abused, but the reaction of other characters witnessing her plight is enough to unnerve you. She is a MacGuffin and nothing more, an object that exists solely for our plot to continue; made all the more insulting because the film is already using her violation as a person, so it continues to treat as her an object to be fought over by our protagonists.
Speaking of which, let’s turn our attention to Henry, who may be the most obnoxious and despicable whimsical character in film, and I saw (500) Days of Summer. He takes Hollywood precociousness to previously unheard of levels of absurdity, as he’s effectively the head of his household. He handles all of his family’s finances for them to live comfortably, he delivers stirring speeches in his 5th grade class, chastises his mother for playing video games, speaks to adults with the maturity of a weathered man, and he prepares elaborate Rube Golberg machines in his elaborate steampunk fort that he designed himself…all at the age of 11-years-old. I literally could not stop muttering “bullshit” every five minutes and that’s just in the first act.
After the painfully torturous high melodrama that forces Naomi Watts to carry out Henry’s ridiculous plan in the second act, the absurdity meter goes into overdrive. You see, Henry leaves multiple recordings that gives his mother a step by step plan on how to execute Christina’s dad (but not before pulling off feats while he was in an extremely incapacitated state). But these recordings don’t merely point her in the right direction, because Henry also had the power of clairvoyance and leaves responses to every single time his mother speaks to herself. Fucking P.S. I Love You laid out its posthumous correspondence in assisting a loved one move on with their life in a more realistic manner than this and…oh Christ, I just praised P.S. I Love You for something, this movie’s sins knows no bounds.
But all of this pales in comparison to the last ten minutes of this miscarriage of cinema. The climax is this off putting juxtaposition of kids performing quirky jokes for a talent show and the unfolding of a perfect murder plot. It gels as well a snowball rolling down an active volcano, because you’re just sitting there watching in horror as this film clumsily goes about its business as if it’s the most logical thing to do. But what really made me yelp “FUCK YOU” out loud in my empty theater, was that this film commits the most damning action I see in films: the characters could have done nothing at all and it would have yielded the exact same result. All that build up, all that insanity, amounts to nothing at all before the film caps itself off with a life-affirming message from one of our characters that’s meant to be inspiring, but just comes across as just plain WRONG.
Goddamn, nothing in this film worked. The story itself was a disaster, but the script makes everything so much worse. These lines of dialogue are straight up terrible, and the film truly doesn’t know how to balance comedy and drama with funny lines crammed into hugely emotional scenes. Even when the dialogue is supposed to be dramatic, the script can’t help but be as cliche and hackneyed as possible either. I don’t think any director could have salvaged this mess, but Trevorrow only highlights his own faults with each second that passes by.
He truly doesn’t know how to handle his actors, and wastes valuable performances from both Naomi Watts and Jacob Tremblay throughout the entire film. Hell, he makes fools out of both Lee Pace and Sarah Silverman in bit roles that somehow just seems insulting that they’re a part of this mess. Trevorrow instead leans on to a score by Michael Giacchino to try to pull your heartstrings and make you feel a certain way, which ironically makes you that much more aware of the manipulation being attempted.
I’m in awe that I saw such a catastrophe on film. This is the kind of movie that interviewers will ask of the filmmakers “what the shit were you smoking when you thought THIS was a good idea?” In a twisted sort of way, I actually kind of want other people to see this disaster, if only for others to understand what the fuck I just went through. Because right now, I am angry. I am furious that such a movie exists. It’s a goddamn insult on so many levels, that I’m amazed I managed to write almost 1800 words for a review that didn’t read “FUCK” with every alternate word.
For longtime readers, a film that truly goes beyond bad and into angering me can only mean one thing. This film deserves the worst rating imaginable. I hate, hate, HATE this goddamn movie so much. The only appropriate rating for The Book of Henry is…
FUCK THIS MOVIE