A film review by Craig J. Koban February 1, 2012

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE j
½ 

2011, PG-13, 129 mins.

 

Oskar Schell: Thomas Horn / Thomas Schell: Tom Hanks / Linda Schell: Sandra Bullock / Abby Black: Viola Davis / Stan the Doorman: John Goodman / William Black: Jeffrey Wright / The Renter: Max von Sydow / Grandmother: Zoe Caldwell

Directed by Stephen Daldry / Written by Eric Roth, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

With the possible exception of the loathsome REMEMBER ME, there has arguably been no other drama that has used the events of September 11, 2001 as shamefully, artificially, and exploitatively as EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE.  The dread and terror of that fateful day in history continues to resonate for millions of people all over the world.  9/11 has certainly wounded the collected American psyche in incalculable ways, so I guess that it really perturbs me when films like this use it so simplistically and casually as a hook for its main character's personal journey.  Some viewers cried at the end of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE; I wanted to through something up at the screen. 

The film – based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathon Safron Foer– most certainly has talent on board: Three-time Oscar nominated filmmaker Stephen Daldry (BILLY ELLIOT, THE READER, and THE HOURS) directs and the usually steadfast Eric Roth (FORREST GUMP, MUNICH, THE INSIDER, and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) is a multiple Academy Award nominee as well.  Talent is not the issue here in the film

However, what is the film's glaring and unforgivable fault is that it uses the terror of 9/11 as a cheap narrative catalyst to engage viewers and make them weep.  Beyond that, it’s also used as a close line of sorts to assist an already deeply contrived, manipulative, and frankly incredulous main story of a child coming to grips with his father’s death.  By the time the film ended I realized that just about any other fictitiously derived calamity could have worked within the fabric of this film’s story to create a similar end result.  To use 9/11 as this film does is all the more disgracefully inappropriate. 

What’s even more damning here is that we have to literally spend over two hours in the presence of one of the most irritatingly precocious and borderline obnoxious movie characters in a long while.  He is an 11-year-old boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), one of those boys that only could exist within a movie and not within any normal plane of reality.  He’s almost unfathomably intelligent and hyper articulate for his modest age, is frightened by almost everything around him, and has an overall disposition that could make him an easy candidate for an autism disorder (he was tested, but the results were inconclusive).  He speaks (oftentimes in voice-over form) in nonsensical ramblings that are dizzyingly grandiose and he has such a low grasp of even modest social skills that it’s a miracle that any human being in the film develops a liking to him.  The easy response to Oskar would be either to sympathize with him or, at least, understand him; I wanted, more or less, to strangle the kid. 

I know…I know…but the kid’s an orphan, perhaps suffering from a mental disease, and lost his father in 9/11, you may be saying.   Oskar’s dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks, credibly playing an awfully nice man here) is a successful jeweler that has a loving wife (Sandra Bullock) and has his elderly mother (Zoe Caldwell) living in the building next to his apartment.  Thomas loves and, most importantly, respects Oskar, which leaves the child feeling closer to his father than his mother.  Then 9/11 occurs, during which Thomas finds himself on the 105th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center just before it collapses.  He did manage to leave six answering machine messages for Oskar and his wife, but Oskar decides to hide this from his already grief-stricken mother when she tearfully arrives back home.  Yeah, this boy is a real piece of work. 

 

 

One year passes and Oskar and his mother have difficulty getting by.  One day changes Oskar’s life when he finds a blue vase in his father’s closet containing a key inside an envelope that has “Black” written on it.  Convinced that the key was purposely left by his father for him to open something special for him (they both used to partake in massive clue-filled reconnaissance expeditions together), Oskar decides to make it his new obsession to locate whatever it may be that the key opens.  He decides that Black is a name, which means that he will have to visit all 472 people with that last name that he finds in the New York phone book.  Since he won’t travel by any vehicle, Oskar will go to all of these people by foot, without his mother knowing, every Saturday and Sunday, until he finds the person that can help him finish his quest.  Eventually, Oskar does get a companion on his mission in the form of a mysterious elderly man that boards with his grandmother and hasn’t spoken for most of his life (Max Von Sydow).  

I never once believed in anything that happens in Oskar’s journey.  I never found it credible that a young boy could walk all over New York by himself and meet so many people that inconceivably welcome him with open arms.  I also didn't believe the manner with which he finally does uncover the secret of the key, which borders on the absurdly convenient and preposterous and is made all the more sanctimoniously mawkish by how it not only heals him, but his mother, a couple that he meets on his journey (played by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) and his grandmother’s relationship with that enigmatic mute that lives with her (the script wastes very little time in telegraphing the real identity and linkage of this man with Oskar).  EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE is so desperate to tug heart strings and eager to please with its cockamamie plot developments that it becomes head-scratchingly distracting. 

And speaking of distracting…there’s Oskar himself.  I did not so much feel for him as much as I did find him creepily unnerving and self-centered.  He’s a fussy, controlling, obnoxiously verbose, and insufferably disturbed child: he becomes fanatical with thoughts of his dead father and how he perished (he even finds photos of people jumping to their deaths from the towers and digitally enlarges them up, just to see if one of the jumpers is Thomas).  He also has nightmares of his dad falling from the tower (the image of Hanks plummeting from the Trade Center and the film's using of other photos of real people in the same hellish act is cruelly exploitative).  Oskar’s withholding of the answering machine messages from his mother is spiteful and hurtful.  This boy is needs therapy, not our easy compassion.  Thomas Horn (2010’s Jeopardy Kids Week champion-turned-actor) is raw and natural in his rookie performance, but regrettably in playing a grating character that’s really hard to emotionally latch on to. 

The other performances are strong too, especially von Sydow’s remarkably intuitive - and wordless -  turn as the mute that follows Oskar (his work here is like a virtuoso acting class in non-verbal reaction) and equally soulful are Davis and Wright, whose collective ten or so minutes of screen time are the most convincing dramatic moments to be had in EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE.  Hanks is predictably stalwart and Bullock handles her grieving mother role with a reliably understated edge.  Daldry’s direction also gives us a portal into New York that’s handsomely mounted and shot; the film looks great.  

Yet, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE is egregiously opportunistic with taking advantage of the collective memories of 9/11 to superficially allow its story to resonate, and it becomes deeply off-putting as a consequence.  Yes, there have been other films to use 9/11, but those examples (like the extraordinary UNITED 93) were more about honoring and recreating the events and the real-life heroes of the day in question instead of cheaply using the tragedy as a cloying exercise in overly syrupy and difficult-to-swallow melodrama.  Films like REMEMBER ME and EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE not only flirt with abhorrent 9/11 sensationalism, they seem to infuriatingly embrace it.  And Oskar Schell is a character that looks really good on paper as a pre-pubescent movie protagonist and hero, of sorts, but in real life you’d be hard pressed to spend two minutes of time with him without wanting to drive your head into a wall.

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