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.