If there’s one quality that can’t, in itself, define a hero, it’s niceness. Movie heroes can be stylish or courageous. They can be witty, shy, sexy, vulnerable, even nasty. (Humphrey Bogart didn’t become the most beloved Everyman in American film history by being a pussycat.) And, yes, they can even be nice. But not just nice.
In Mike Nichols’ processed heartwarmer Regarding Henry, Henry Turner (Harrison Ford), a cutthroat Manhattan lawyer with his hair slicked straight back — in today’s movies, that greased-to-kill look spells out a man’s character as surely as a black hat did in an old Western — has an encounter with destiny. Henry is the sort of courtroom sharpie who, in front of a jury, can lie like a used-car salesman. When his client is found innocent, he lets out a crisp, triumphant ”Yes!” (He’s transparently happy for himself, not the client.) Outside of court, workaholic Henry is all business, barking out his displeasure at the people who delivered the wrong dining-room table. What a meanie! Is there no hope for this cad, this selfish user, this…this yuppie?
Slipping out of his palatial Upper East Side apartment for a pack of cigarettes, Henry walks into the middle of a convenience-store holdup and, mostly because of his arrogance, gets himself shot in the head. He survives, but with brain damage, and when he wakes up his mind is a blank slate. Thanks to the care of an ebullient physical therapist (Bill Nunn), he quickly regains his motor skills and his command of English. But the Henry who emerges is a different man. He hasn’t just been rehabilitated; he’s been reborn. He doesn’t remember his wife (Annette Bening) or his smart young daughter (Mikki Allen). He doesn’t remember his law practice or even how to read. Denied all knowledge of his past life, Henry saunters around in a loping daze, a fully grown innocent with a befuddled look in his eye and the sweet, slack smile of a shy little boy. This new Henry has no quirks, no aggressiveness or passion. But he sure is nice.
Regarding Henry, as you may have gathered, is about how Henry’s tragic mishap turns him into a better person. Suddenly, he’s a sweetheart — a little dim, perhaps, but affectionate and fun. He takes hand-holding walks with his wife and mischievously tosses wads of paper at his daughter. Back at the office, he learns what an unscrupulous lawyer he used to be and decides that maybe he doesn’t want to be that way anymore. (But how is he going to earn a living — by weaving baskets?)
The movie, with its man-child hero learning to smell the roses, would seem to fall into the therapeutic-uplift genre of Rain Man and Awakenings. Except that there’s an unintentional absurdity at its core. As the film portrays it, the old, nasty Henry hasn’t simply been ”improved”; he’s been eradicated — he no longer exists. So even as Regarding Henry invites us to applaud what a sweet, wonderful guy Henry has become, the film seems weirdly blind to the fact that it’s about a man who loses his identity, his inner life — his soul. There’s barely a scene in which Annette Bening (wasted in yet another neo-Doris Day role) acknowledges that her husband has become a total stranger. Might she not be a trifle upset?
Ford has moments of playfulness. For most of the movie, though, he speaks in a dazed, halting monotone. He’s like a somber elf, and Regarding Henry plods along to the flat rhythms of his vocal delivery. The movie has a few jokes, but it could have used some of the canny, real-world logic that made Rain Man so convincing (and funny). A few scenes after Henry has learned, joyously, to read the word ”Ajax,” he’s in his law office wondering why crucial evidence was withheld during one of his old cases. I couldn’t help wondering how he’d suddenly learned to decipher complex legal briefs. At times, what happens is so outlandish that the film veers close to being a fantasy fable on the order of Being There (1979). That movie, though, was satire; this one is played straight. Nichols’ eagerness to give yuppies their comeuppance may have superseded his good sense. He’s obviously trying for a crowd pleaser, but there’s something fundamentally mindless, not to mention smug, about a movie that says it’s perfectly okay to lose your personality — as long as you turn out nice. C-