Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

3 Jan

Title: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Year: 2011
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writer: Eric Roth, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, James Gandolfini
MPAA Rating: PG-13, emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language
Runtime: 129 min
IMDb Rating: 6.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 53%
Metacritic: 44

On paper, few films look as impressive and inspire so much expectation as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did when it was announced. It was directed by Stephen Daldry, who had famously racked up Best Director nominations for all three of his past films (Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader); adapted from a popular book by a popular author that used the topic of 9/11 as an integral part of its plot by Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for adapting Forrest Gump; it was produced by Scott Rudin, one of the best producers nowadays, the man responsible for such films like last year’s The Social Network and True Grit as well as this year’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (all of three of which got an A+ from me); it had music by Alexandre Desplat, who’s brilliant; cinematography by two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges; editing by Oscar winner Claire Simpson; and a cast led by two of America’s most beloved actors, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, as well as supporting turns by celebrated actors like Max von Sydow, Viola Davis and John Goodman, and introducing a promising young actor in Thomas Horn to carry the film. Like I said, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seemed bulletproof.

Ultimately, however, it just wasn’t so great. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still certainly very good, it’s really well-made and superbly acted by all involved, but it also feels all too mushy, and uplifting in a kind of self-important way made to appeal to Oscar voters. So I was split, I loved certain parts of this film, but there were others that were just so overwrought that I couldn’t fully get on board with it. I got to the point in which I just couldn’t help but think that this film would have been so much better had it just been less manipulating, that it would have gotten to me so much more and much deeper levels had it not been so focussed on doing just that.

Thomas Horn is in charge of playing Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old who loses his father, played by Mr. Hanks, in the World Trade Center attacks. Oskar’s father always gave him little puzzles to solve, scavenger hunts to go on in order to get his son to really experience the world and his environments, to get past his fears. And now that he passed away Oskar is sure he’s left him one final message hidden somewhere in New York City, namely finding the lock that can be opened with a key he finds in his dad’s closet. So you see Oskar’s journey through the city, and his mission to find the lock becomes an opportunity to observe both the personal loss he himself had, as well as his grieving mother played by Ms. Bullock, as well as the broader impact such an event had on the city and everyone in it, as represented by a slew of supporting characters introduced as Oskar goes about the city.

There hasn’t been a definitive 9/11 movie yet, and I don’t quite think Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is it. Oliver Stone tried with World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass made the outstanding United 93, but the wound is still too fresh, and audiences either aren’t drawn into them or can’t find them resonating with them, much like the Iraq war hadn’t had a great film about it until The Hurt Locker came along a couple years ago. Stephen Daldry, you get the sense, was aware of how hard it would be to make a 9/11 film; maybe that’s why he looked at it through Oskar’s eyes, eliminating the other perspectives and narrators shown in the book, and eliminating some other gimmicks the book had to instead rely on sentiment and inspirational stuff. But I don’t know, good as this film is I thought Mr. Daldry relied too much on the emotional payback and shied away from the more political messages he could’ve brought out to make this film better, a balance the he showed he could achieve really well in all three of his previous films.

Having two hugely likable stars like Mr. Hanks and Ms. Bullock I do believe helps, it makes accepting a film about such difficult themes easier when you have two faces you know and love guiding you through it; Mr. Hanks is funny, a source of warmth to us as an audience and to Oskar as a grieving son, who considered his father his best friend, and Ms. Bullock though certainly not as bright as usual because she has to play a mourning, not always likable mother, is still Sandy Bullock who won an Oscar just for being likable. But I don’t think the film still earns the right to really use the images it does, the smoke and papers coming through buildings, a body falling through the sky in slow-motion, the many faces filled with shock and horror running through the streets, not knowing what to make of this.

It’s still a good film though, I don’t think it approaches the greatness I along many wanted for it, but it’s a good film. As the film uses Oskar’s search for the lock to his father’s key to get us into the lives of people from all over the city having to cope with the catastrophe that just shook them all, especially effective is the exchange he has with Viola Davis’ Abby Black, the actress showing why she went toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep in Doubt a few years ago, and why she’s now seen as the biggest threat to Ms. Streep’s third Oscar this year for the work she did in The Help, she nails this role here. Also shining here is Max von Sydow, as an elderly man who lives in the same apartment as Oskar’s grandmother and accompanies him on his quest, with a past so troubled that he’s chosen to go mute, and yet expressing so much with just his face and expressions that go along with the words “yes” and “no” that he has tattooed on each palm; Mr. von Sydow is brilliant here.

I guess this film was always going to be quite divisive as far as the reactions it elicited from its audience. The subject alone would make it so, factor in the huge amounts of emotions and it becomes that much more polarizing; people thinking it goes to far with the saccharine, people thinking it doesn’t show enough heart, people being pissed off about it poking at a wound that hasn’t fully healed yet, others thinking it does so with too much caution. These are, after all, pretty damn big themes for a film to tackle head-on, even as it humanizes them by seeing them through the eyes of a little boy. And it will make you cry, or at least it made me cry, it’s just that I don’t know if it really earned those tears. Good as this film is, it’s not The Hurt Locker on the Iraq war; by which I mean, as good a 9/11 film as this may be, it’s not the definitive one, it won’t take away the taboo from the subject.

Grade: B+


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