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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

February 17, 2012


written by: Eric Roth (screenplay) and Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)

produced by: Scott Rudin

directed by: Stephen Daldry

rating: PG-13 (for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language)

runtime: 129 min.

U.S. release date: December 25, 2011 (limited) & January 20, 2012 (wide)


There were a handful of crowd-pleasing and manipulative movies released in 2011, but none of them earned as vitriolic a reception as “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” did. It’s been called precocious, pandering, and cloying by critics, and even some avid moviegoers, while some viewers have found it satisfying despite its blatant heavy-handed nature. And now the latest Oscar bait from director Stephen Daldry has acquired a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a move which baffled many, including myself, and elicited even more vehement disapproval. While I’m not as outraged by this film’s existence, I do find myself perplexed that a cast of actors – who usually deliver performances ranging from good to great – are unable to redeem a film that, at its best, feels like a trite Hallmark special and, at its worst, a typical Lifetime movie.

The movie starts out with a figure floating in the air with debris swirling around him. We quickly learn the man is not floating, but falling from one of the Twin Towers and the day is September 11th, 2001. Whatever emotion that elicits depends on the viewer, I was willing to go with and see where it would lead, hoping for a poignant reflection on lives lost on that tragic day. It is nice to have hopes.

We then meet Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a precocious 10-year-old boy who will be the protagonist and narrator of the movie. We learn he has Asperger’s Syndrome and is able to function thanks to the help he gets from his tender father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who encourages the boy to use his sharp mind to see their New York City surroundings like an investigative adventure, instead of being stricken with fear by it. Through humor and patience, Thomas is able to instill confidence in his son, who is able to embark on a journey to uncover the city’s “secret history”, with coping mechanisms intact.



Then Thomas dies in the 9/11 attacks, devastating Oskar’s world. Throughout the next year, he becomes increasingly withdrawn from his grief-stricken mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), as he obsesses over the five messages his father left on their answering machine that fateful day. When Oskar discovers a mysterious key labeled “Black” amongst his father’s belongings, he becomes determined to find out what it opens. He maps his way through all the Burroughs, visiting a variety of people who may or may not be connected to the key. Assisting the super-organized Oskar is the old mute man who lives in the adjacent building, known as The Reader (an expressive Max Von Sydow, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and as the two break out of their respective comfort zones, unexpected regret and guilt surface for them both.

So, we have characters still reeling from a devastating event, trying to make sense of it all, as introduced by and  seen through the eyes of a cute kid. The selling point has to be the actor playing Oskar, who has to not only be a good actor, but also convincing and not too overtly cutesy. Newcomer Horn (a previous Jeopardy! champion) is actually quite good as Oskar, who with his many affectations (he carries a tambourine around as a pacifier), is a strange character, which is find since there have been and always will be strange kids in real life and in cinema. Although the performance is consistent, after a while his quirks and robotic delivery us just too much, becoming more of a distracting annoyance than an endearing character we care for.



Working with a first-timer, it feels like Daldry is the puppet master here, stringing along Horn’s work and reigning him in, making sure he stays on a path designed to pluck viewer’s heartstrings. If something like that seems blatant and obvious to the audience, than it doesn’t work.

Horn can’t take all the blame though, finger-pointing (and wagging) should be directed to screenwriter Eric Roth (responsible for “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), who provides nothing more than a one-dimensional role for the child actor. In fact, Roth doesn’t limit his cliff note characterization to just the main character, he’s generous to all the other actors as well.

From the concierge played by John Goodman, who trades profanity-laced high-fives to Oskar (designed to be cute), to the two characters with the last name Black, integral roles played by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright (what are the chances that characters named Black are played by black actors?), each actor here has just barely enough cameo material to send this boy on his way. As noted above, these are actors that generally make us stop and take notice, here (save for Viola, who is great as always) they’re merely bumpers for Osker to bounce off of as he pinballs around town.



I have no idea if Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel is as cloying and maudlin as what Daldry delivers here, but I really hope the book is better (which we know, is usually the case). I’ve heard that it does have more visual flair and creativity, but nothing about watching what I saw on the big-screen gave me any inclination to check it out.

What needed to happen with “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is for the film to really go for sincerity, instead of outright manipulation and exploitative 9/11 coverage. I really have no problem with the events of 9/11 playing a central part of the story and I understand that the story is about loss. It’s just that grief and mourning are need to be dealt with honestly, in a way that the audience can come upon these themes on their own. But Roth and Daldry try to tell us what and when to feel, not instilling any trust in us to arrive there on our own.

Still, this is a movie that many will easily latch on to, paying no mind to its ready-for-cable acting and its obnoxious delivery. What a lucky guy Daldry is – this is the fourth film he’s made (“Billy Elliot”, “The Hours” and “The Reader”) and the fourth the Academy has nominated for Best Picture. Voters must just look at his name, shrug and vote. I’ll remain ambivalent and continue to think through all the other films that could’ve taken its place.







2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2012 9:01 pm

    Just the trailer for this one seemed a little Hallmark-y.


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