Regarding Henry (1991): Mike Nichols’ Contrived Message Film, Starring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening

The National Brain Injury Research Foundation, an organization for survivors of brain injury, has called Regarding Henry, the new Mike Nichols film about a battle to recuperate from brain damage, unrealistic. But lack of realism is not the major problem. Though well-intentioned, and decently acted,  this message film is superficial, simplistic, and full of time-worn cliches.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Hollywood seems to have a penchant for issues of mental damage and recovery, as evidenced in such popular films as Charly, Rain Man, and last year’s Awakenings. These films have provided excellent roles for their actors, who often win Oscar Awards, as was the case of Cliff Robertson in Charly and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. And now Harrison Ford, in a valiant attempt to continue his move away from teenage fare (Star Wars, Indiana Jones), makes his contribution to the genre. In a role that is more reactive than active, Ford gives the most poignant and best dramatic performance of his career, an achievement that is likely to be remembered at Oscar time.

Ford is cast as Henry Turner, a high-powered corporate attorney, who suffers neurological damage after being shot in a holdup at a convenience store. He wakes up at the hospital with a face that is bewildered and blank. Having lost most of his memory, Henry needs to rebuild his personality–and life–from scratch. Before getting shot, Henry is a caricature, perhaps because of the brevity of time the narrative devotes to his character. Ruthless and manipulative at work, he is an oppressive father and not exactly a sensitive husband at home.

The film’s veneer is so thin and obvious that there is nothing for the audience to do but nod with approval, and boredom, as Henry becomes a better person. Regarding Henry could have been a deeper, more genuine, exploration of what is important in life, instead of the superficial Hollywood gloss it is. It would have been more interesting if some dark sides of Henry’s previous personality would have reappeared, if he didn’t become such a perfect citizen, if he didn’t despise his career as a lawyer, if he didn’t hate his old clothes.

Instead, each scene makes its point, and the message is explicitly stated. At the end, Henry says, “I want us to be a family for as long as I can.” The politically correct values are so blatant that the film descends to a level of sentimentality that even Frank Capra would have found embarrassing. As a populist fable, Regarding Henry’s appeal is based on a universal wish to step outside of ourselves and reassess what is important in our lives. The film’s premise is predictable, though unconvincing: Given the choice and endowed with more self-awareness, people will become better human beings.

What distinguishes this film from a TV Movie of the Week is the quality of acting and slick production values. The excellent Annette Bening, playing Henry’s loving and dedicated wife, lends extraordinary warmth, radiance, and vulnerability to a role that is underwritten. Mikki Allen, as Henry’s twelve-year daughter, has many memorable moments in the only role that resonates some emotional complexity. In a role reversal (a fantasy that many children share), she teaches her father how to tie his shoes, how to read, how to behave in a public library.

In his previous films (“Postcards from the Edge”), Mike Nichols has blended successfully shrewd humor, emotional drama, and sharp characterization. But lacking cynicism and dark humor, which this film desperately needs considering its leaden pace, Nichols makes safe and easy choices. When a film resorts to reaction shots of a cute dog you know it is going for the obvious emotions. It is apparently a personal film for Nichols, but semi-autobiographical works are not necessarily good ones.

Made on a budget of 25 million, Regarding Henry was greeted with mixed to negative reviews, and was only moderately successful at the box-office.

Cast
Harrison Ford as Henry Turner
Annette Bening as Sarah Turner
Mikki Allen as Rachel Turner
Bill Nunn as Bradley
Rebecca Miller as Linda
Bruce Altman as Bruce
Elizabeth Wilson as Jessica
Donald Moffat as Charlie Cameron
John Leguizamo as Convenience Store Robber
Robin Bartlett as Phyllis
James Rebhorn as Dr. Sultan
J. J. Abrams as Delivery Boy (as Jeffrey Abrams)

Credits:

Directed by Mike Nichols
Produced by Mike Nichols, Scott Rudin
Written by J. J. Abrams
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Edited by Sam O’Steen
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date July 12, 1991
Running time: 107 minutes