Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Regarding Henry isn’t so much infamous as ignored. Mike Nichols directed it. Harrison Ford and Annette Bening star in it. The screenplay is by a young writer named Jeffrey Abrams—later simply J.J. Abrams, the ubiquitous TV and movie force who created or played a major role in the creation of Alias, Felicity, Lost, and Cloverfield, and established his directorial bona fides with Mission: Impossible III and 2009’s Star Trek. Yet it’s usually remembered as the most gimmicky of a long, still ongoing string of yuppie redemption movies that started to pop up in the late ’80s, films in which overworked dads learn to reconnect with their neglected families. (See also: everything from Hook to this summer’s Marmaduke. Sometimes it seems like overworked dads needing to reconnect with their families are the only sorts of dads out there.) Reviews at the time weren’t particularly kind, either. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby offered the faintest of praise, calling it “a good deal more tolerable than any such gimmick movie has a right to be.” Roger Ebert found even less to like about “a film of obvious and shallow contrivance.”
Curiosity factor: But with that pedigree, how bad could it be? I haven’t seen all Mike Nichols’ movies, but I’ve seen enough to know I like them more often than not. And I tend to rate even his less-well-regarded films, like Primary Colors and Postcards From The Edge, higher than most of my fellow critics. (I have my limits, though. I’m not sure how What Planet Are You From? happened.) I’ve also been curious to discover whether there’s a moment in Harrison Ford’s career when you can actually see him stop trying. I assumed it had to fall somewhere between his intense, hunted performance in The Fugitive and his sleepy work as President Kickass in Air Force One, but maybe the signs were there earlier?
The viewing experience: Let’s get this out of the way first. (Nineteen-year-old spoilers follow…) Regarding Henry is the story of a fairly awful man who gets shot, loses his memory, turns childlike, and becomes an all-around better husband and father. It’s a film about redemption through brain damage. The implications of that are pretty staggering. Forget education, wit, sophisticated thinking, and higher reasoning: What the world needs now is for everyone’s brain to be deprived of oxygen just long enough for them to want to go out, eat a hot dog, and buy a puppy, as Ford does.
But let’s back up: Ford’s Henry Turner is a pretty bad man. How bad? He’s a ruthless, high-powered attorney, first seen defending a hospital against a malpractice suit fired by a sweet-looking senior citizen who’s confined to a wheelchair, due to some sort of hospital screw-up. Boo. Hiss. But the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, it provides all kinds of visual shorthand for his black, black soul. In one scene, he barks orders while trotting down his firm’s hallway at a pace difficult for his longsuffering secretary to match, all while sucking down a cigarette. When he’s done, he hands her the butt. Later, he berates his glum-looking child (Mikki Allen in her only film role to date) before heading out for another cordial, chilly evening with his wife (Bening). But his hair makes even those touches look excessive. Patrick Bateman would marvel at its don’t-fuck-with-me slickness:
He is, in short, not a very nice man. Then, while going out for cigarettes, he’s shot by a baby-faced John Leguizamo and lapses into a coma. As Bening and Allen fret about him, and about their financial security, he slowly recovers, first at a New York hospital, then at a nearby rehab center. And for a little while, Regarding Henry turns into a not-bad movie.
Watching famous actors play the mentally impaired has always been distracting, even before Tropic Thunder made it impossible to avoid considering where their performances fall on the “full retard” scale. That’s doubly true of an actor like Ford, who tends to offer variations on the same famous persona in every film. (That’s no slight; it’s what true movie stars have always done.) I can’t make a case for Ford’s work here as brilliant. When his character returns to his family and co-workers in the later parts of the film, it can, at best, be called not-terrible. But Ford is good in conveying the helplessness of a recent trauma victim in the early parts of the film, which mostly pair him with the fine character actor Bill Nunn as the physical therapist who aids his recovery.
Already a fixture in Spike Lee movies by 1991, and later to make appearances in everything from Money Train to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, Nunn made a deep impression two summers before Regarding Henry as the doomed Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing. Here, he gets an unusually meaty role, one that could easily have turned into a stock Magic Negro part in lesser hands. Instead, Nunn captures exactly the sort of person who excels in his profession. He has a room-filling personality, a tenacious commitment to his patient’s success, and a bottomless sense of optimism. That lattermost quality is doubtless not always backed by results; not everyone recovers, and some patients get worse. But it’s a professional necessity to believe in the possibility of recovery, and Nunn’s character never lets doubt creep in, or at least doesn’t let Ford see any doubt creeping in. Every sign of progress counts as a major triumph, because it might also double as a finish line. Some patients only get better up to a point.
There’s likely a good film to be made about the recovery process. Nichols, Ford, and Nunn seem well on their way to making just that film when Regarding Henry shifts back to Manhattan, leaves Nunn behind (apart from one later scene), and turns Ford into a wise fool. His product-free hair now flopping boyishly whenever he moves, he learns to connect to his daughter, reignites a romantic fire with his wife, and recovers his soul from the bottom of a stack of legal files. It’s here that Regarding Henry starts to strain credulity, even for a film about a brain-damaged lawyer. Ford is allowed to go back to work, where he sorts papers to no apparent end in an office decorated with one of many paintings of Ritz cracker boxes he created while in recovery:
Later, we learn that he fixated on the word Ritz because he used to conduct his affair with fellow lawyer Rebecca Miller at the Ritz-Carlton. Also—shocker!—he won the film-opening case by suppressing important evidence. With every new revelation of past transgression comes a new chance at redemption through simplicity, however. Once, he was a man who yelled at his little girl, ran around on his wife, and cheated kindly oldsters. Now he’s really into puppies, and able to see the error of his misplaced priorities.
The film might have worked if it weren’t so sanctimonious and didn’t confuse simplicity with innocence. It also cheats. Apart from one incident in which he wanders the streets and stumbles into a porn theater in the pre-Giuliani incarnation of Times Square, Ford’s character more or less eases back into his life, his brain damage mostly flaring up when it serves the plot. It’s everyone else who has to adjust to his way of seeing the world, a better, stupider way than you or I see it.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? I regret nothing, but then I rarely regret watching even the worst movies. This wasn’t one of those. It’s more a misguided, though occasionally retch-worthy, mediocrity elevated by its cast—Bening, as always, is particularly strong—and Nichols’ fluid camerawork. Those elements at times make it seem like a better movie than it really is, but it doesn’t benefit from scrutiny or thought. Of course, maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I’m just one encounter with senseless violence and morally upgrading brain damage away from seeing its beauty.