Film Review: Regarding Henry (1991)

After a decade establishing himself as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Harrison Ford made some serious changes in the early 1990s. He put away his bullwhip and hung up his blaster, and Indiana Jones and Han Solo went into retirement (well, until recently). For Ford, he was no longer content to play “scruffy nerf herders,” or rouges who always shot first. No. In the 1990s his career went in a new direction, as he took up the mantle of being the screen’s most harassed family man.

Throughout the 90s Ford offered many variations on this idea, with each role no longer showcasing charismatic lone wolves, but deeply conflicted men whose families and lives were often under existential and physical attack. 1991’s Regarding Henry firmly embodies this theme, with Ford’s character undergoing a profound transformation after he is shot in the head after stumbling across a convenience store robbery. For the role, Ford adopted two distinct personalities, which the actor successfully imbued with his trademark charisma.

Directed by Mike Nichols, Regarding Henry is largely an uneven film. It has affecting moments, but essentially it’s a conventional tale about an awful man who rediscovers his moral center. The generally limp noodle feeling of the story is something that cannot be attributed to the actors, who all handle rather thin, facile material with conviction and energy. Instead the film’s banality comes from its script and the writer behind it, the then unknown scribe who at the time went by the name of Jeffrey Abrams (as opposed to his now widely recognized name of J.J.).

Not only is Regarding Henry banal, but it also paints with a massive brush, often times to such an egregious degree that characters feel cartoon-like. This is evident from the film’s opening frames, which feature Harrison Ford’s lawyer Henry – his hair slicked back and oily – totally eviscerating the case of an old, doddering codger in a New York court room like a hawk attacking a rabbit.

This sequence is, essentially, hilarious, with the courtroom scene being broken up by a shot of Henry on the phone, grousing over his new dining room table while systemically ruining an old man’s life. The simplistic bombast of the film never really lets up after that. We are introduced to Henry’s wife Sarah, played by a very young and very beautiful Annette Bening, who also is characterized as vapid, obsessed with little more than status and wealth. We also see Henry’s law partners in the opening scenes, who cackle with glee in a plush office suite, and guzzle expensive champagne following Henry’s litigious triumph.

The hyperbole which pervades Abrams’ script is a clear signal of a fledgling professional writer. The characters are so bombastic prior to Henry’s injury because it allows a contrast to be more easily drawn regarding how they transform following Henry’s slow, painful recovery.

Even characters who are not involved with Henry’s life pre-gun shot are thinly-sketched. Bill Nunn – playing the role of Bradley, a therapist who works with Henry following his injury – attempts heroically to elevate his part. He gradually transforms throughout this tale into Henry’s saving grace, a motivating force of nature that feels more than a little unrealistic. Thankfully, Nunn brings his A-game to the role, and manages to prevent Bradley from simply becoming yet another variation of the “magical negro” stock character, who only exists to help the white man.

Similarly, as the titular Henry, Ford offers a strong performance. There is something intensely moving about his initial scenes of recovery, particularly the scene where he is finally able to squeak for the first time after being shot. Perhaps these scenes are affecting due to Ford’s expressive face. Yet, it could be that there is something deeper behind them. Undoubtedly, watching Regarding Henry nearly 25 years after its release is an interesting experience, as Harrison Ford has certainly, by now, been cemented as one of the premiere action heroes of the big screen. Thus, because his presence carries immediate associations with all that is masculine and heroic, the role is more interesting than if it was played by another actor. You are drawn into the part, and shocked by how Ford is able to express vulnerability as easily as he punches Nazis in the face.

Annette Bening unfortunately has a more thankless role, existing to support Henry and fret over his excruciating recovery. Her and Ford’s characters have some nice scenes which imply that their marriage had been in trouble prior to Henry’s injury, and that his subsequent loss of memory (and the personality changes this precipitates) gives them another chance at happiness. However, aside from this function, Bening is given very little to do throughout the film. Still, her personality at least develops in a realistic fashion. Like the rest of the characters, she is characterized as being an intense yuppie prior to Henry’s injury, and this personality trait doesn’t immediately disappear following the shooting. This is implied after Henry’s rehabilitative care financially strains the family, and her Sarah temporarily ignores that their lavish lifestyle may have to change.

For as crippling as the script is, the admirable performances by the actors are hampered more by Mike Nichols’ impersonal and overly sentimental direction. There is none of the virtuoso technique or bitter cynicism that was so apparent in his earlier films, which included titles like Carnal Knowledge and The Graduate. He adds nothing notable to locations like the cavernous home of Henry and his family, and his camera movements – which imbued The Graduate with striking psychological depth – are flat and uninteresting here, devoid of any real subtextual power. Still, without a doubt the worst aspect of Regarding Henry is Nichols’ use of music to transition between scenes. The “score” is the stuff of nightmares, little more than a simpering, cringe-worthy series of piano pieces.

For most of the people involved with it, Regarding Henry is a minor if not lackluster title. It’s such a modest, unchallenging and unmemorable film that one wonders if Harrison Ford even remembers that he worked with Abrams on it. If it has redeeming qualities they are few and they are ephemeral. Not much registers aside from brief images, such as Ford’s anguished face or Bill Nunn’s forceful, magnetic presence. Still, it marks an interesting point in its leading man’s career, where Ford temporarily was putting aside his stock characters and searching – with mixed results – for something more.

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