Film Review: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

by Jason LeRoy on January 20, 2012

Thomas Horn and Sandra Bullock in EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

starring: Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright

adapted by: Eric Roth

directed by: Stephen Daldry

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language

I went into Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth’s adaptation of the bestselling Jonathan Safran Foer novel, with much lower expectations that I had a few months ago. As has been widely discussed, this one started out on just about every critic’s shortlist for obvious Oscar hopefuls. It certainly had the pedigree: hugely acclaimed source material, an A-list cast of Oscar winners and nominees, Oscar-winning screenwriter Roth (Forrest Gump), and three-time Best Director Oscar nominee Daldry (The Hours, The Reader, Billy Elliot). But then something unfortunate happened: people saw it. There was a near-instantaneous critical consensus that, rather than a serious contender, this was a tragically inept awards season turkey.

Perhaps because of my significantly lowered expectations, I did not hate it as much as I’d expected. I didn’t even really mind it. It is worth noting that much of the loathing seemed to come from New York critics, an especially difficult bunch when it comes to films about their city in general, let alone about 9/11. Much has been said about the film’s handling of 9/11, with some labeling it as exploitation, and others protesting that it’s still too soon to be using this fairly recent historical event as fodder for fictional narratives (although that certainly didn’t stop the Bush administration, amiright?). If you have a lot of sensitivities about 9/11, this isn’t the film for you. Personally, I don’t, nor do I subscribe to the view that we as Americans were all equally impacted by it. I am happy to leave the harrumphing about this film’s depiction of 9/11 to the New York critics, because frankly, they’re more qualified to comment on it.

What we have here is a quite well-intended allegory about experiencing loss, both individually and communally, and the realization that loss is ultimately what unites us. Our protagonist is Oskar (Thomas Horn), a young boy who possibly has Asperger’s — the test results were inconclusive. It has been a year since 9/11, and Oskar is still mourning the death of his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), who died in the Towers. Also in mourning is Linda (Sandra Bullock), Oskar’s mother. One day while rooting around in his father’s closet, Oskar discovers a key in a small envelope labeled “Black.”

Before Thomas’ death, he had been engaging Oskar in a game designed to draw him out socially. He created an elaborate story about New York City’s mythical “sixth borough,” and appealed to Oskar’s curiosity by sending him on carefully arranged missions of discovery. So when Oskar finds the key, he decides it is the last pivotal clue his father left for him to finally figure out the game. Armed with a backpack, a phone book, and eventually, a mysterious mute man (Max von Sydow) boarding with Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), Oskar sets out on an exhaustive odyssey across all five boroughs to visit each and every person with the last name Black, convinced that he’ll find the key’s owner and finally make sense of what happened to his father; in so doing, he encounters a diverse cross-section of a city that, like Oskar, is still figuring out how to make sense of that day’s events.

While it is certainly moving at times, it is frequently far too tactless and brazen in its tear-duct manipulation; if it were a television personality, it would be Tyra Banks. Each of the designated “tear-jerking scenes” feels forced and contrived, clearly recognizable, with very few organically emotional or genuine moments. It is overwrought and disingenuous, which is a dangerous thing when you’re already telling a fictitious story against an all-too-real backdrop of overwhelming devastation.

What power the film does have comes almost entirely from the performances. As Oskar, Thomas Horn is perfectly cast. Making his film debut after being discovered on a Kids Week episode of Jeopardy, Horn takes what could have been utterly disastrous in the hands of the wrong actor and makes it wholly convincing and totally believable. His deadpan delivery and furrowed, determined, adult-looking brow give the film what little authenticity it can scrounge together. He carries the entire film; everyone else is really just a bit player, but with some nice moments from von Sydow, Viola Davis, and Jeffrey Wright. Bullock, in her first film since The Blind Side, weeps gently in a bizarre early-aughts wig, but seems a bit miscast; the role would have been better-suited to someone with greater capacity for conveying weighty emotions, like Vera Farmiga.

The film certainly looks and sounds great, with excellent cinematography by two-time Oscar-winner Chris Menges (The Mission, The Killing Fields) and a lovely score by Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat. But in the end, it just doesn’t work. The symbols and themes — it has no fewer than four male characters dealing with the loss of their fathers; the number “6” repeatedly comes up — are laid on far too thick. Most frustratingly, for a story about a boy learning that life doesn’t always give you the answers you want, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close literally gives you all the answers. All of them! Everything is tied up impeccably by the time the credits roll. There is no ambiguity about anything, except Bullock’s wig. But still, the basic framework of the story — a boy struggling privately with loss ventures out into a city struggling with the same thing, the micro moving into the macro, each on overlapping journeys toward closure while discovering the comfort of connectedness and community — is universal.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close opens nationwide today.

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