“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011). Cast: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Bernadette Drayton. Director: Stephen Daldry. Screenplay: Eric Roth. Book: Jonathan Safran Foer. http://extremelyloudandincrediblyclose.warnerbros.com/index.html
Tackling a sensitive, larger-than-life topic is a risky proposition in almost any context, but it can be especially problematic in the movie industry. In most instances, endeavors like that are bound to attract their share of both supporters and detractors (those involved in these productions no doubt hoping for more of the former than the latter). Such is the challenge that’s been undertaken by director Stephen Daldry in his latest offering, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Nine-year-old New Yorker Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) adores his attentive, fun-loving father (Tom Hanks). They do everything together, from practicing tai chi to exploring the city that is their playground. They particularly enjoy playing a game that dad made up called “Reconnaissance Mission,” a scavenger hunt of sorts designed to encourage Oskar’s curiosity, to develop his problem-solving skills and to teach him about his world. And, being the methodical, inquisitive kid that he is, Oskar relishes the challenges posed to him, not only for the fun involved, but also for the father-and-son quality time that they afford. It’s easy to see that these two are best buds. Which is why it’s so hard for Oskar to cope with the events of 9/11, the disaster that claimed his dad’s life when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
In the wake of this tragedy, Oskar desperately looks for a way to hold on to his connection to his dad, and he gets that opportunity when he unexpectedly finds a key in his father’s bedroom closet. Oskar wonders what the key opens, the only clue being the word “Black” written on the envelope that held it. He concludes that his dad must have left the key for him to find, the enigmatic object serving as the focus of one last Reconnaissance Mission. Oskar also surmises that, since the key could potentially open anything, the challenge posed by this exercise could keep him occupied for years – literally. What better way to keep the paternal connection alive, perhaps indefinitely?
And so Oskar embarks on a scavenger hunt that takes him all over New York. His quest introduces him to Gothamites from every borough and of every stripe, including, among others, a kindly divorcée (Viola Davis), a spiritualist healer (Bernadette Drayton) and a mute stranger simply known as “the Renter” (Max von Sydow). But, despite Oskar’s tenacity, his quest seems futile, causing him considerable frustration and straining relations with his mother (Sandra Bullock), who’s attempting to resolve her own grief over her husband’s loss. Oskar thus struggles to come to terms with the task that he’s given himself and whether it will ultimately help him reconcile – or merely prolong – his sorrow.
The foregoing summary probably makes the film’s narrative sound reasonably straightforward. If only that were the case. In actuality, the picture’s story line is all over the map, using a variety of storytelling devices and introducing subplots that either get dropped for no apparent reason or are awkwardly resurrected when seemingly forgotten. Because of that, it’s difficult to get a handle on what this movie is really trying to say.
To be sure, there are some conscious creation themes explored in the film, most notably those related to facing fears, examining unexplored probabilities, understanding the nature of the reality we experience, embracing change by letting go and appreciating the inherent connectedness of all things. However, the passing and often-haphazard treatment they receive reminds viewers of just how many other pictures are out there that handle these subjects much more deftly and substantively.
That aside, however, the theme that would-be viewers are perhaps most curious about going in is the picture’s treatment of the 9/11 subject matter. The world at large, and New Yorkers in particular, truly deserve a thoughtful film that effectively addresses the impact of this event in a way that can help promote the much-needed collective healing that’s still being sought a decade later. Regrettably, however, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” fails to deliver on this point.
As it’s employed in this film, the 9/11 connection is, unfortunately, little more than a means to heighten the anguish of the survivors of a great personal loss, which is, in actuality, the primary thrust of the picture’s overall story line. Given that, then, Oskar and his mother likely would have been devastated by their circumstances no matter how their father/husband had died, so drawing upon 9/11 as a means to accentuate that pathos, without the event being given any more meaningful relevance within the overall narrative, only serves to reduce this tragedy to a plot device. In my view, the events of that fateful day clearly deserve more profound consideration than they have received here.
Progressively minded viewers have been anticipating this picture for some time, fueled in large part by a well-orchestrated marketing campaign. I, too, was looking forward to this offering far in advance of its release. I was truly hoping that I would like it, and I wish I had better things to say about it, but its meandering screenplay, choppy editing and unfocused direction combine to derail this effort. Making matters worse is the often-irritating performance of the film’s young male lead; his manic, shrill delivery exacerbates the many problems created by uneven writing and his character’s poorly crafted persona, that of a young man who’s either overly quirky and annoyingly precocious or a hyperactive special needs child receiving insufficient care (neither of which is made especially clear in the script or in his character’s development).
However, the film is not without its merits. Bullock turns in a fantastic performance (even if there wasn’t enough of her), as does von Sydow, who rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his portrayal of a silent, inscrutable enigma. But, despite these fine portrayals, there’s also an awful lot of great talent in this film that gets seriously underused, particularly Davis, Jeffrey Wright and John Goodman; they’re relegated to largely insignificant roles that could have been capably played by any number of aspiring actors looking to get some big screen exposure.
Despite the picture’s shortcomings (and a wealth of unflattering reviews), it nevertheless has its supporters. It received two Academy Award nominations, one deservedly for von Sydow’s supporting performance and one inexplicably for best picture. Earlier this month it also received four Critics Choice Award nominations, including nods for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, as well as a stunning (and bewildering) win for Horn as best young actor/actress.
Some have suggested that a good many reviewers have been overly critical of this picture, that it’s perhaps even the victim of a certain sort of fashionable cynicism. However, when a picture aspires to greatness by taking on an imposing subject, it had better measure up or its creators must be prepared to face the consequences. This sentiment is perhaps best summed up by film critic Gary Wolcott of The Tri-City Herald, who astutely observed, “Somewhere in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close there probably is a great movie. It just didn’t get made.”
Sadly, I couldn’t agree more.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.