A film review by Craig J. Koban February 1, 2012
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY
2011, PG-13, 129 mins.
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
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
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.
know…but the kid’s an orphan, perhaps suffering from a mental disease,
and lost his father in 9/11, you may be
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
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.
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.