When I first heard of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I seriously thought it was a horror movie. The ominous title, the weird poster, the creepy kid…
I was sort of correct. Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close revisits the real-life horrors of September 11th, 2001. The story centers on 9-year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an odd kid at the very least. Exceptionally intelligent though hyperactive and socially awkward, he appears to have a disorder that begins with an A. (Tests for Asperger’s were “inconclusive.” A diagnosis of “Annoying” depends on the viewer.) Oskar lost his father (Tom Hanks, seen in flashbacks) on 9/11, or as he prefers to call it, “The Worst Day,” and has grown even more withdrawn since. He barely speaks to his mother (Sandra Bullock) which leads her to often cry quietly alone. The most interpersonal contact he has is via walkie-talkie with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) who lives in the building across from his. Weeks after 9/11, Grandma takes in a mysterious old man known only as “The Renter” (Max von Sydow) who scares, but also intrigues Oskar.
Oskar keeps a secret stash of his father’s things in a hidden compartment in his bedroom, including the answering machine containing messages from the tragic day (he replaces the machine before his mother can hear the messages) and visits it often. About one year after the attacks, he finally gets the courage to open the door to his father’s closet, which hasn’t been touched since his passing. While performing all the standard movie grieving exercises with a deceased loved one’s clothing (smell, rub sleeve against cheek, go through pockets) Oskar accidentally breaks a vase. Among the shattered pieces is an envelope containing a key. There is nothing that identifies what the key is for other than the word “Black” written on the envelope. Oskar, who loved the puzzles and expeditions he would solve with his dad, decides this is the last one that would bring him closer to closure and becomes obsessed with finding out what the key opens.
His grandmother doesn’t know anything about the key and for some reason he doesn’t think to ask his mother, so Oskar decides to solve this puzzle by finding every person in the five boroughs of New York with the last name “Black.” All 472—those are the ones that are listed anyway. It never occurs to Oscar that maybe the person isn’t named “Black”. Or that “Black” may not even be a person. Or to call the people instead of going to their homes. Maybe this kid isn’t so smart after all. Anyway, what follows is Oskar’s journey about the people he meets and how he affects them and how they affect him and the exploration of grief and closure and life and blah blah blah, with lots of disturbing images of 9/11 (complete with Tom Hanks falling through the air set to sad piano) interspersed. It’s the feel good movie of the year!! (This is a lie. If I was Oskar, I would say “Lie number one” right now. It’s something he does.)
If ever there was an Oscar bait film, this is it. A just not TOO SOON! enough take on a fairly recent tragedy starring America’s favorite people (and Oscar winners!), Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Hell, the lead character’s name is Oskar. However it all but seems to have disappeared from awards-talk and that can be due to a number of reasons, some of which I will get to in a moment.
(UPDATE: Well strike my side blind! It snagged a Best Picture Oscar nomination after all!)
As for praise, the film boasts a strong cast. Besides Hanks and Bullock, there are additional recognizable names in Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Zoe Cadwell. Each, as usual, gives an exceptional performance (Goodman’s character is a bit strange, though. He’s apparently there for some kind of comic relief, but it falls flat.)
The standout of the film is Max Von Syndow as “The Renter,” who befriends young Oskar and accompanies him on his quest to find Black and the lock belonging to the key. Like Oskar, The Renter has a social impairment: he is mute and only communicates by writing on a pad or by flashing the words “YES” and “NO”, which are tattooed on his palms. It’s a fascinating and brilliant portrayal by Syndow (von Syndow?) who, much like the actors in this year’s Oscar frontrunner The Artist, must rely on non-verbal methods of emoting.
It’s a little misleading that Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock are billed as the leads as neither have many scenes. Tom Hanks is there just enough to make the audience realize what an awful world we would live in without Tom Hanks and as I mentioned earlier, Sandra Bullock mostly cries quietly alone. Those hoping for some sweet chemistry between America’s most likable male and female actors will be disappointed. Both are predictably excellent in their small, but important roles, though.
I’ll save you the cost of a movie ticket, this is as much as you’re gonna get.
It’s a heavy film with touchy subject matter, that’s for sure. Even ten years after that worst day, the images still hurt to look at just as much. I can’t imagine how much worse it is for a person who lost someone they loved that day. Using those images for dramatic effect in a fictional story is tricky. Of course using historical disasters in fiction is a hardly a new thing, but it always must be handled with care. At times melodrama-loving director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) gets it right and it’s extremely poignant, but in others, it seems incredibly exploitative. The burning towers, the jumpers, the pasted photos of missing people, none of these things needed to be thrown up on the big screen to get the point across. We get it. We lived it. No need to keep bashing us over the head to try to make us cry.
Of course this is someone that took nearly the entire first third of a film to get the point across that Kate Winslet’s illiterate Nazi cougar lady loves getting naked, so he’s clearly not the less-is-more approach kind of director.
I really hate to pick on children (except for Justin Bieber) but I have to since the entire film pretty much rests on the shoulders of newcomer Thomas Horn. I don’t know how this casting came about, as Horn’s only previous on-camera experience was as a winning contestant on Kids’ Jeopardy (By the way, I am eagerly awaiting Ken Jennings’ feature film debut. Make it happen Hollywood!) It’s likely the choice was based on Horn’s own intelligence, since the character of Oskar spouts off random facts and paragraphs of analytical thought faster than you can say Bazinga. But the resulting dramatic performance of the Kids’ Jeopardy champion is exactly what you would imagine from a Kids’ Jeopardy champion.
He gets the dialogue (and lots of it—in addition to being in nearly every scene, much of the film is narrated by Horn) correct, too correct in fact, over-enunciating a lot of the time, but it seldom feels authentic. The kid tries his damnedest, but you can see the concentration on his face more than the emotions he is going for, and that was my major issue with this film and in my opinion why it (for the most part) didn’t work. Add to that surrounding him with veteran award-winning actors and it’s even more obvious. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely talent and potential there, but it needs some honing. Due to this, unfortunately, the character comes off more grating than sympathetic.
“Isn’t there another child I can hang out with instead? Perhaps one that projectile vomits pea soup?”
God I feel like an asshole.
I’ve heard Alexandre Desplat’s score for this film praised numerous times but to me, again, it seemed like overkill and was so over melodramatic, it borderlined on parody. Every already exaggerated emotion was exaggerated further by a hysterical swell… (And what’s funny is, I’m usually the biggest blubberer at movies. I will cry at anything, but aside from the real images from 9/11, nothing in the fictional story got tears from me, not even with the sad music.)
Oskar’s quest for the elusive Mr. or Mrs. Black takes him on long weekly journeys throughout the city. During these visits, one wonders, where is his mother and how does she not realize something is up? At the end of the film, we get an answer, and it’s extremely far-fetched and incredibly ludicrous, and feels almost tacked on. On the plus side, we do finally get to see Sandra Bullock do something other than cry quietly alone and it’s actually a nice wrap-up to the conflict between the two characters.
But just when you start getting up, you gotta sit back down, because that’s not the end. There’s more. And then more. Geez, this is extremely long and incredibly excruciating.
By the time the 2 hours and 9 minutes (I know this because I checked it on IMDB.com) of this film was over, I felt a sense of relief, like a Band-Aid finally being completely removed after slowly pulling it off, hair by hair. Seriously, it’s depressing as hell, manipulative, and the kid is irritating (plus they give him a tambourine on top of it!). The scenes with Max von Sydow make it tolerable. However, for a more enjoyable experience featuring actors that don’t speak, check out The Artist.
Mark “don’t call me Marky” Wahlberg recently came under fire for comments he made about being able to stop the events of 9/11 if he were on one of the planes. He later apologized. Mark, I don’t know if you’re reading this (most likely not), but on the chance that you are, there is something you can do to make this up. If you are ever in your first class seat on a plane and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is announced as the in-flight movie, do whatever you must to stop it. Preferably dropping your pants and performing “Good Vibrations” in your Calvin Kleins. kthxbai!
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Oskar drinks a juicebox.
Take a Drink (and curse Jesse James): every time Sandra Bullock cries.
Take a Drink: at every flashback.
Take a Drink: every time the Renter answers with “YES.”
Take a Drink: every time the Renter answers with “NO.
Take a Drink: every time you want to grab that goddamn tambourine and hit Oskar over the head with it.