A Very Late Film Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (dir. by Stephen Daldry)

Earlier this month, I finally found the time to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the critically reviled “prestige” picture that was the center of a minor scandal when it received an Academy Award nomination for best picture back in January.

That nomination, by the way, is the only reason that I made a point of DVRing the film when I saw that it was going to be on HBO.  I had already been turned off by the film’s trailer and the subject matter (a little kid trying to make sense of 9-11 by wandering around New York with a mute old man) seemed like the sort of thing that could only have been made effective by a Roberto Rossellini or a Vittorio De Sica.  Say what you will about director Stephen Daldry (and I think that both Billy Elliott and The Reader are excellent films), he’s not an Italian neorealist.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seemed like just the film to bring out his worst instincts as a filmmaker.

Having now finally seen the film, I am sorry to say that my initial instincts were correct.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the type of film that gives a bad name to good intentions.  This is the type of film that you watch and you know that you should be touched by the subject matter but it just all feels so forced, heavy-handed, and ultimately quite empty.

The film tells the story of Oskar (played by Thomas Horn), a brilliant child who is also a bit abrasive and neurotic.  At one point, Oskar says that he’s been tested for Asperger syndrome but that the tests were “inconclusive.”  What’s interesting about this is that in the book that this film is based on, the possibility that Oskar might be autistic is never stated or even hinted at.  Instead, he’s just an abrasive kid and, to be honest, the film’s decision to make Oskar autistic feels less like characterization and more like narrative laziness.  It’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers introduced autism as a way to avoid dealing with the fact that Oskar (especially as played by Thomas Horn) is perhaps one of the most abrasive and annoying characters in film history.

Oskar’s life falls apart when his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), is killed on 9-11.  He obsessively listens to the final 6 messages that his father left on the family’s answering machine, even while he hides those messages from his mother (Sandra Bullock).

A year later, Oskar is exploring his father’s closet and finds a vase that has an envelope in it.  Inside the envelope is a key and written on the envelope is the word “Black.”  Convinced that the key is a final message from his father, Oskar looks up the address of every single person in New York whose last name is Black and sets about tracking each one of them down and demanding to know if they knew his father.  Eventually, he’s joined in his quest by a sad-eyed mute (Max Von Sydow) who lives with Oskar’s grandmother.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is based on a novel and the film’s central idea — that Oskar’s quest is his way of trying to make some sort of sense out of the September 11th terrorist attacks — is one that works better as a literary metaphor than as an actual story.  While Oskar’s quest might seem poignant on paper, it becomes narcissistic and rather insensitive when seen on film.  You find yourself wondering why so many New Yorkers are willing to let this obnoxious and rather annoying little brat into the homes, especially when he usually responds to their hospitality by being rude and condescending.

(In the film’s defense, it does try to address that very issue at the end of the movie but it does so in a way that just doesn’t seem that plausible.)

Ultimately, the film feels like a rather crass exploitation of a true-life tragedy and it’s made even more offensive by Daldry’s heavy-handed approach to the material.  This is the type of material that needed more than a hint of realism and instead, Daldry seems to feel that it’s necessary to manipulate us into thinking that 9-11 was a national trauma (as if we didn’t already know that).  The all-star approach that Daldry takes to casting his story also serves to undermine the film’s message.  At moments when you should be wrapped up in the unfolding melodrama, you find yourself saying, “Hey, it’s John Goodman!  There’s Viola Davis!  Oh look!  Jeffrey Wright!”  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ultimately feels less like a film about a national trauma and more like a slick Towering Inferno-style disaster flick.

The film’s one saving grace is Max Von Sydow, who dominates this entire film without saying a word or even having that much screen time.  One wishes that Daldry had told his 9-11 story through Von Sydow’s sad eyes and just left the kid at home.

Here Are The 2012 Critics’ Choice Movie Award Nominees

Earlier today, the Broadcast Film Critics Association announced their nominations for the 17th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards.  The BFCA is the largest of the so-called “major” critics’ groups (and, interestingly enough, it’s also the newest and the least prestigious) and it has a fairly good track record of predicting the actual Oscar nominations.  The awards themselves will be handed out on January 12th, 2012 in a self-important, kinda seedy ceremony that will be broadcast on VH-1.   

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

George Clooney – The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Viola Davis – The Help
Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks – Drive
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Patton Oswalt – Young Adult
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Sir Andrew Serkis – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Berenice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Carey Mulligan – Shame
Octavia Spencer – The Help
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Asa Butterfield – Hugo
Elle Fanning – Super 8
Thomas Horn – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Ezra Miller – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Saoirse Ronan – Hanna
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
The Ides of March

Stephen Daldry – Extreme Loud & Incredibly Close
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive
Martin Scorsese – Hugo
Steven Spielberg – War Horse

The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius
50/50 – Will Reiser
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
Win Win – Screenplay by Tom McCarthy, Story by Tom McCarthy & Joe Tiboni
Young Adult – Diablo Cody

The Descendants – Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Eric Roth
The Help – Tate Taylor
Hugo – John Logan
Moneyball – Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Story by Stan Chervin

The Artist – Guillaume Schiffman
Drive – Newton Thomas Sigel
Hugo – Robert Richardson
Tree of Life – Emmanuel Lubezki
War Horse – Janusz Kaminski

The Artist – Production Designer: Laurence Bennett, Art Director: Gregory S. Hooper
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 – Production Designer: Stuart Craig, Set Decorator: Stephenie McMillan
Hugo – Production Designer: Dante Ferretti, Set Decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo
The Tree of Life – Production Designer: Jack Fisk, Art Director: David Crank
War Horse – Production Designer: Rick Carter, Set Decorator: Lee Sandales

The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion
Drive – Matthew Newman
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
Hugo – Thelma Schoonmaker
War Horse – Michael Kahn

The Artist – Mark Bridges
The Help – Sharen Davis
Hugo – Sandy Powell
Jane Eyre – Michael O’Connor
My Week With Marilyn – Jill Taylor

Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The Iron Lady
J. Edgar
My Week With Marilyn

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Super 8
The Tree of Life

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Super 8
The Tree of Life
War Horse

The Adventures of Tintin
Arthur Christmas
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

Fast Five
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Super 8

Crazy, Stupid, Love
Horrible Bosses
Midnight in Paris
The Muppets

In Darkness
Le Havre
A Separation
The Skin I Live In
Where Do We Go Now

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Page One: Inside the New York Times
Project Nim

“Hello Hello” – performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga/written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin – Gnomeo & Juliet
“Life’s a Happy Song” – performed by Jason Segel, Amy Adams and Walter/written by Bret McKenzie – The Muppets
“The Living Proof” – performed by Mary J. Blige/written by Mary J. Blige, Thomas Newman and Harvey Mason, Jr. – The Help
“Man or Muppet” – performed by Jason Segel and Walter/written by Bret McKenzie – The Muppets
“Pictures in My Head” – performed by Kermit and the Muppets/written by Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis and Chen Neeman – The Muppets

The Artist – Ludovic Bource
Drive – Cliff Martinez
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Hugo – Howard Shore
War Horse – John Williams

The BFCA has obviously made a lot of nominations and some of them are interesting but I have to be honest: the BFCA as an organization annoys me with how they’re always bragging about how big they are and how they’re so good at celebrating the conventional establishment wisdom.  So, I’ll just say that its nice to see Hanna getting at least some sort of recognition (even if that recognition is kinda minor.)