When film students in the future search for terrible movies in 2017, they'll have a hard time locating "The Book of Henry." Not because it's good — trust us, it isn't — but because it will be hard to find.
The Naomi Watts-led film is a domestic drama, a thriller, an exploration of modern parenting, a revenge flick, a call to social action, a meditation on grief, a caper and a movie about a budding genius. Since it doesn't spend enough time doing any of those things, watching it is as frustrating as trying to categorize it.
It opens as the story of Henry, an exceptional 11-year-old who is trying to navigate a brutal and unexceptional world. Along for the ride are his normal brother and his overwhelmed but slightly infantile single mom (Watts, very good at the wrenching drama, confused elsewhere).
Henry (the terrific Jaeden Lieberher) is the de facto adult in the family, paying bills, buying stocks, giving computer tutorials, overseeing the shopping and protecting his younger brother. "Find me another male of the species who's more grown up than him," his mom says of her first son. As for her, she's a waitress at a diner, drinks too much wine and plays first-person shooter video games.
Henry is a genius, but a non-threatening, quirky one. He uses payphones instead of cellphones, microcassettes instead of digital recorders, builds his own walkie-talkies, uses a Polaroid camera and wears World War I-era googles in a way that's supposed to communicate cuteness. He constructs complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions in his tree house, which is designed in Tim Burton Lite. The film seems to want to stretch toward fantasy or whimsy but it fights an established sober tone grounded in the early winter leaves and fading light of New York City suburbs.
As soon as we settle down to what seems to be a domestic coming-of-age drama, things take a turn first toward horror when Henry suspects his next-door crush is in danger, and then another zag when a medical problem suddenly arrives. It ultimately becomes a thriller before adding some farcical elements, collapsing on its own preposterousness. Written by Gregg Hurwitz, author of the "Orphan X" thriller novels, you might feel as if you're on your own Rube Goldberg contraption.
Raising — and then quickly abandoning — interesting dramatic avenues, "The Book of Henry" becomes completely unhinged, with Henry's mom running around the forest cradling a high-tech sniper rifle. Soon the cliches start piling up — a good-looking doctor becomes a love interest, the chilly police chief with something to hide is protected by small-town politics, a girl tries to communicate her pain through dance and we are subject to various bad montages of people carefully planning elaborate missions.
The film is directed by Colin Trevorrow, who directed and co-wrote "Jurassic World" and has been tapped to do the same with "Star Wars: Episode IX." He apparently has made a pit stop between blockbuster franchises to make a complete mess of a small film. The only thing not thrown at this film was a dinosaur or a cute robot.
The script leaves many good actors completely marooned. Maddie Ziegler, making her film debut (she danced in Sia's "Chandelier" video), shows promise with her brooding brokenness, and Dean Norris ("Breaking Bad," ''Under the Dome") is a deliciously charming heavy. Jacob Tremblay, playing Henry's brother, turns in a wonderfully complicated take on what's it's like to be in the shadow of a prodigy. And Sarah Silverman gives us a prickly, honest turn as a co-worker of Henry's mom until a truly terrible final scene that ruins all her work.
It's hard to tell whether Watts is simply miscast or anyone would be doomed in her role. There are times when she simply drifts and others when she threatens to take the film by the scruff of its neck. When she's on, she gives her all — parental love, crushed by sorrow, silliness and lethally focused, including a touching scene in which she strums a ukulele and sings the new Stevie Nicks song "Your Hand I Will Never Let It Go." But this is a film that she can't save and one that you can do nothing else but let go quickly.
"The Book of Henry," a Focus Feature release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for thematic elements and brief strong language." Running time: 105 minutes. One star out of four.
Definition of PG-13: Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits