THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE"
You have no idea what I wanted to do with that tambourine by the end of this movie.
I knew something was amiss in the opening seconds of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This drama, set against the backdrop of Sept. 11, has opening credits that feature artful close-up shots of Tom Hanks falling through the air, having presumably leapt from the top of the World Trade Center. Whenever a movie touches on 9/11, there are those who will cry too soon! I'm not one of them, but I am a believer in the idea that a film has to approach real-life tragedies with a tender, sensitive hand. As directed by Stephen Daldry, this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel hauls out memories and images from 9/11 in an attempt to create fake sentiment and to accentuate its own sense of self-importance. Quite frankly, I found that offensive.
Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, an autistic nine year-old whose father Thomas (Hanks) was killed in the World Trade Center attack. Thomas always tried to help his son by creating mysteries for him to solve, so that he'd have to interact with other people. A year after his father's death, Oskar sneaks into the bedroom closet, accidentally smashes a vase, and finds a mysterious key in an envelope, the name “Black” printed on the outside. Assuming it is one last mystery from his dad, he sets out to find the lock into which the key fits. This means running around the five boroughs of New York interviewing strangers (one of the movie's many stretches of credibility). Oskar tries to hide his activities from his grieving mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), but he does accept help from an elderly mute man known as “the Renter” (Max Von Sydow) who lives in his grandmother's spare bedroom.
Now, let me tell you about the trip Oskar takes. He first makes his way to the home of Abby Black (Viola Davis) who, as he arrives, is crying because her husband is leaving her. Despite being in a rather serious state of grief, she opens the door to this kid she's never met before and, without questioning why he's there, tolerates his intrusiveness. She even allows him to photograph her in the middle of what Oprah Winfrey would call “the ugly cry.” The whole thing rings false. There are montages of other strangers similarly welcoming him into their home and businesses.
Because Oskar is autistic, the plot is sure to give him a lot of eccentric behaviors, such as wearing a gas mask in the subway, or shaking a tambourine when he gets nervous (which, believe me, happens a lot). When a supporting character asks Oskar how long it's been since something happened, the kid of course has to answer in years, months, days, minutes, and seconds. Most of his dialogue – which frequently has him analyzing things or spitting out obscure facts – doesn't sound the way a real kid would talk; it sounds like a screenwriter trying to imbue every line with “meaning.” I know autistic kids. Yes, they have quirks. Oskar doesn't have quirks, he has contrivances. I didn't read Foer's novel. All this stuff may have been in his book, but what plays well on the page doesn't always play well on screen, which is the case here. There's always the issue of translation. On the screen, Oskar and his journey seem ridiculous. Thomas Horn is not a skilled enough young actor to successfully pull off this character. His performance seems overly mannered, and that only emphasizes the script's manufactured quality.
This brings us to the 9/11 angle. As translated by Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, the references to the tragedy are here to make all the nonsense seem important. Mentions of it serve as punctuation to frivolous scenes, as though the very association will give the story depth. Take out the 9/11 stuff and all you have left is a superficial story about an odd kid running around New York looking for a lock. Yet Daldry is intent on making sure you know that he is crafting a Very Important Film at every second, by repeatedly saying, Hey, remember when the planes flew into those buildings and all those people died? There is never a moment when the tragedy is incorporated smoothy into the plot. Instead, it is hauled out at emotionally-convenient moments, designed to trick you into thinking the storytelling is working on you when, in fact, you are merely having a natural emotional response to the reminder of a deeply painful event. Daldry wants to rip your heart out by reminding you of how you felt that day, so that you will think his movie is good and profound. It is neither of those things. It is shallow and unable to generate sufficient emotion on its own terms.
Yes, the film lays it on real thick. Oskar looks at a television and sees one of the towers collapsing at the precise moment needed to provide a payoff for a climactic scene. In another, Oskar and the Renter head out to a little shack along the river. As the boy approaches the building, a plane flies behind it. Daldry stages the shot so that it looks as though the plane is flying into the home. Because, don't forget: Oskar's father died during the September 11th attacks! It is this kind of pandering that really made me hate Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. You can feel it trying to yank on your heartstrings and physically rip the teardrops from your eyes. The term “Oscar Bait” is used derogatorily to denote a film that factory-assembles elements that make it more likely to appear artistically substantial, and therefore award-worthy. EL&IC is a textbook definition of Oscar Bait. It apparently worked, as the film got a surprise Best Picture nomination, thereby making it quite possibly the worst film ever nominated for that honor.
In fairness, Davis, Von Sydow, and Jeffrey Wright (as the man who holds the answers to the mystery of the key) do some fine work. But they are really the only saving graces EL&IC has. Jonathan Safran Foer's novel was a best-seller, generally acclaimed by critics. I am not suggesting any of this is his fault. A movie adaptation has to find its own way with a story. This film finds a cheap, exploitative way to translate Foer's tale. It fails to create audience investment for its central character and his journey, and so the 9/11 references serve as nothing more than Pavlovian triggers. If you get choked up, it's not because the movie is good, it's because it is pushing a button it knows will get a reaction. The bottom line is that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is extremely manipulative and incredibly pretentious.
( 1/2 out of four)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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