Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Reviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 01/26/12 19:54:12

"Nothing is illuminated."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Director Stephen Daldry knows exactly where he wants his audience to be by the end of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and that’s reaching for their tissue box. The problem is that he has no idea how to gracefully hit his target, so instead of approaching it with the precision of an arrow, he instead opts for a shotgun blasts of cloying sentiment and absurd contrivances, with just about all of it missing the mark.

The first shot comes when we open on an image that’s been seared into the brain of anyone who witnessed the September 11th attacks, as we watch bodies falling from the sky in horror. One of the victims here is Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), a humble New York City jeweler who leaves behind his wife (Sandra Bullock) and son, Oskar (Thomas Horn). A year after the devastating attacks, Oskar stumbles across a key hidden in his father’s closet, and he assumes that this is somehow meant to send him off on a scavenger hunt similar to the ones he embarked upon when his father was still alive.

And of course he’s a borderline Asperger case, a seemingly calculated move to deflect any contention that he’s grating and, well, annoying to a certain degree (see, I felt bad just typing that). This allows him to be a fidgety motor-mouth, and the script provides numerous moments that allow him to rifle off the contents of his brain, presumably to make him endearing or cute, all the while blunting the real, weighty implications of his possible condition.

His travels have him bumping into similarly cartoony oddballs in his journey, which unfolds rather ludicrously in a script penned by Eric Roth based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s original novel. On paper, this is a pretty good match--Roth’s done adaptations of fantasy-laden historical stuff (“Forrest Gump,” “Benjamin Button”), and Foer’s literature has taken a magical-realist approach. None of it works here, though, as it’s hard to stomach the ridiculous, convoluted fairy-tale plot that unravels in the shadow of something that’s still as searing as the 9/11 attacks.

That specter hangs not only hangs over us outside of the movies, but it almost suffocates this one--we revisit “the worst day” (as Oskar dubs it) a countless number of times, its horrors and anxieties adequately captured. But, at the same time, we’re forced to swallow that a socially-handicapped kid trots around the Five Boroughs, visiting everyone with the name “Black” that he can find in a phone book so he can discover what the point of this key is. He’s told that accomplishing this will be a miracle, which is convenient since “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is the cinematic equivalent of a faith healer, quick to deliver nice words and shoulder pats to offer false comfort.

Such falseness reduces the September 11th backdrop as mere window dressing, the weepy centerpiece to an overwrought tear-jerker. This is a movie that’s “about” 9/11 about as much as Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” was “about” the events of December 7th. Instead, it’s a transparently manipulative volley, one that allows the film to easily prey and coast on our very real emotions of that day; there’s little real craft involved in wringing a reaction out of audiences in this case. This isn’t merely a case of a film being released too soon--Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” proved that the world was ready for a thoughtful take on this material years ago.

Rather, it’s the altogether superficial treatment combined with the scattershot narrative that can’t settle on a through-line, so it tosses out a handful of Hallmark beats. One of them involves an interlude where Oskar forges a bond with an old mute man (Max von Sydow) whose familial connections with the boy are obvious. The old man hasn’t spoken since he was caught in the Dresden firebombings as a child and eventually ended up ditching his young son and wife later in life. Now, he’s making up for lost time, at least for as long as the film will have him around. Von Sydow is one of the few bright spots here since he’s able to craft a sad, pitiful figure without ever speaking a word before he’s shuttled off, never to be heard from again until it’s time to put a big, overwrought bow on this thing to wrap it up.

This is where the film is at its most absurd, as you can practically feel it doting on audiences, petting them on the head; Sandra Bullock (who, along with Hanks, is seemingly only cast because she’s a safe, affable persona) spends much of the film appearing to be a pretty deadbeat mom who lets her kid wander in and out of their apartment at will. We eventually learn that there’s a reason for this, just as there’s a reason that Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are cast in the roles of the first people Oskar encounters on their quest; Wright especially is another gleam here who only needs one scene to become more captivating than anything and anyone surrounding him. Oddly, his subplot is one that the film doesn’t even bother to hem up, a doubly baffling move when you consider how his character eventually parallels Oskar.

For the most part, though, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” sure does seem neat as a pin once the credits begin to roll and it’s doused you in Nutrasweet; most of its dots seem to be sufficiently connected, but they only manage to create a formless portrait of an event that’s already a permanent snapshot in its audience’s mind. In the end, its nearly 150 minute journey seems as pointlessly laborious as its main character’s journey, as it sure does take a lot of steps to express sentiments that can be found on the greeting card aisle. Everything happens for a reason, we learn, except for perhaps this film, whose point continues to elude me.

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