The upcoming Star Wars movie won’t mark the first time Harrison Ford and J.J. Abrams have crossed paths. As the 1980s became the 1990s and Harrison Ford traded in Han Solo, Deckard and Indy for a string of lawyers, doctors, politicians and playboys, the young writer Jeffrey Abrams was just getting his start. His first singlehanded script was Regarding Henry, a story about a heart-of-ice lawyer who is irrevocably changed by a horrific accident, and he scored big time with Ford and director Mike Nichols coming on board to bring his script to the screen.
Thankfully, even though Ford’s ’80s history is repeating itself with returns to Star Wars, Blade Runner and possibly Indiana Jones, Abrams has matured out of his Regarding Henry self and doesn’t appear to be looking back. A solid cast and crew does not a solid movie make, and Henry is far more by-the-numbers than you might expect from the Ford/Nichols/Abrams triumvirate. There must have been something in the water in Hollywood in the ’90s, as Henry takes a prominent station in the decade’s prized Overly-Emotional Tearjerker Oscar-Bait category.
There are a hundred thousand “tearjerkers” that are more excruciating than Regarding Henry, but at worst the film is just that: one that makes you roll your eyes instead of wipe tears from them. The glaring issue isn’t the script alone or Ford’s performance alone, but together the scenes that are meant to be the most impactful fall utterly flat. Henry, once a cold bastard of a lawyer, is essentially turned into an adult infant when he’s shot in the head during a convenience store robbery. The formula is a time-tested one — Jerk Recognizes He’s a Jerk, Changes —and one that still hits theaters every year (last year was The Judge). That doesn’t mean the formula is a death sentence for the film, though, especially not in 1991 when the heyday of such casually inspirational cinema was going strong. But Regarding Henry fails to color that familiar device with anything new, instead casting every part you’d expect — newfound friendship in a personal trainer, old shaky friendship with a ruthless lawyer, daughter who learns to love new father, etc. etc. It’s the kind of movie where the guy who shoots Henry in the convenience store is probably played by John Leguizamo, and, well, yeah, the guy who shoots Henry in the convenience store is played by John Leguizamo.
The most criminal scene is the luncheon where Henry voices what he’s discovered about his own professional past. The Matthews Case, one of Original Henry’s crowning courtroom victories, turns out to be pretty unethical. There’s a file that would all but win the case for the poor, downtrodden plaintiff, but Henry and the law firm buried it and never told anyone. Putting aside the sheer fact of a Manhattan law firm being a predictably cruel pillar of dishonorable ethics against which New Henry might take a stand, the lunch scene is so flat and ineffective it seems as if Abrams and Nichols forgot to film the second half of it. Henry states that he’s found a moral discrepancy, his evil lawyer friend states that the lunch they’re enjoying has been paid for by that discrepancy, and Henry essentially says “okay”. The scene where he articulates what’s on his mind doesn’t happen there, but it doesn’t really happen later, either. He gets a revenge of sorts on his old firm, but he never overcomes his speech disability to put any kind of triumphant point on it all.
That incompleteness and lack of total satisfaction might also be attributed to Nichols alongside Ford and Abrams, as the great director’s photography is here as flat as it’s ever been. One scene depicts Henry sitting on the edge of his bed, making a phone call to his daughter’s school, rereading a letter that his daughter sent, receiving a package from his maid, thanking her, opening the package, reading the card, and making a realization about the stationary that the card is written on. Ford doesn’t really move the entire time, but neither does the camera. Any effort to liven things up is passed over, and it’s one of the most distractingly uninteresting scenes in Regarding Henry.
Again, there are more serious offenders of similar ilk. At best Henry finds emotion by accident, primarily in the scenes between Henry and his daughter. Nichols, though he fails to inject his film with any real verve, does seek out a sleek Art Deco New York in Henry’s expansive apartment and his high-rise corner office. It’s the aesthetic that Nichols would drape in October shadow for his next film Wolf, wherein Jack Nicholson basically plays the Original Henry of this film’s opening scene. As we consider how much more interesting Wolf is over Henry, the awkward possibility arises that Original Henry, the asshole lawyer with a heart of steel, is simply more interesting than New Henry, the pleasant do-gooder with the heart of a child. If any of the intended emotional impact of Regarding Henry evaporates before Henry’s accident even occurs, it’s because Henry is somehow more endearing when he’s a bastard.
So thanks a lot, Leguizamo.