Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Movie Review

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one hundred percent Oscar bait and shamelessly so. It co-stars two Oscar-winning actors as the parents of a precocious child who sets out on a journey of discovery after the death of his father. There’s an international screen legend (once Oscar nominated) cast an elderly man who doesn’t speak. It’s penned by Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump, and directed by Stephen Daldry, the only person ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar for each of his first three feature films. To top it all off it’s a post 9/11 drama that centers on the breakdown of a family after a tragic loss on that day.

These facts alone don’t make it a bad movie, but it does strike me as a rather craven attempt to capitalize on the real-life tragedy of 9/11 for the sake of both profit and accolades (the film was originally timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary) just as Roth’s source material, the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, does. Any film dealing directly with 9/11 as subject matter is automatically going to face criticism for attempting to make pop culture out of an event from living memory that affected the lives of countless millions. To be sure, there are interesting ideas at stake and they are worth examining, but they deserve a platform with less treacle and forced sentiment.

It probably doesn’t help matters very much that Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old boy and protagonist in the story, is in many ways unsympathetic. He is cold and emotionally detached, obsessed with finding order and patterns, and deathly terrified of public transportation. He was much closer with his father Thomas, played in flashbacks by Tom Hanks, than he is or ever was with his mother (a constantly forlorn Sandra Bullock). But his relationship with his father seems more built around bonding over common interests than emotional connection. Reconnaissance Mission was a favorite game of theirs in which Thomas set extravagant clues for Oskar to follow, a method employed to get the boy out of shell and talk to people. No one seems to mind very much that this usually means hobnobbing with homeless men or conducting nighttime searches in Central Park with a metal detector. As Oskar, the first time actor Thomas Horn, is about as good as child actors come. He is totally convincing even when the character as written is not. He has a commanding control of his voice and can portray Oskar the child who needs guidance as well as Oskar the burgeoning adult trying to figure it all out.

More than a year after Thomas’s death, Oskar discovers a key in his father’s closet. The envelope that contained it bears only the name “Black.” He takes this as a final mission set by his father and begins cataloging all the people named Black in the city of New York and vows to visit them all until he finds where that key fits. His fear of public transportation dictates that he must walk everywhere which sort of makes you wonder how he manages to go from his home on the Upper East Side to Fort Green, Brooklyn, and back in a single day without being absolutely exhausted. The woman he meets there is Abby Black (Viola Davis), whose husband William (Jeffrey Wright) happens to be moving out that day, leaving her in a state of melancholy. She’s far too quick to allow a strange boy into her home and you just want to scream at everyone, “What the hell are you doing? He’s a child!” The casting of Davis and Wright allows me to reference the Law of Economy of Characters for the second time in as many weeks.

The specter of 9/11 hangs all over the film, with the opening title graphics that subtly mimic the shape of tall towers and the ghostly silhouettes (perhaps only imagined by me) that look like those sad human shapes that signaled to those watching on TV just how terrible the inferno must have been at the tops of those towers that jumping was the best option. Oskar even has a printed image of a falling man blown up so large it appears as a cluster of square pixels, but still he thinks maybe he sees his father’s glasses there sometimes. He gently hints at his knowledge of the universality among all family members of 9/11 victims when he admits that maybe other children think it’s their dad in that picture. Alexandre Desplat’s score helps guide the emotions at the core of the movie. His piano and string melodies gently lull us into the story even when we see the mechanical workings of the cloyingly manipulative script tugging at us.

Oskar’s search continues every weekend for several months before he gets some help from the renter (Max Von Sydow) who takes a room in his grandmother’s apartment across the street. This man has a mysterious past that he won’t divulge to the boy. He has lost the ability to speak, but is able to carry on Thomas’s difficult task of help Oskar come out of his shell, but only after an overwrought montage of Oskar hurriedly explaining his quest to the old man. It’s not long before we begin to realize that Oskar’s journey is an attempt to heal psychological scars and find answers, an allegory perhaps for the American, or more to the point, New Yorker condition in a post-9/11 world. The facile message that this commercial pop drivel delivers is that some things are random. There are not necessarily answers, reasons or explanations for everything. When your father dies in a collapsing skyscraper, it had nothing to do with any vendetta against him.

However, Daldry’s film averts its eyes when it comes to any potentially polarizing political implications. I’m sorry to point this out, but there’s no denying that 9/11 was political. It was not without explanation. It was not a random act of violence. The hijackers certainly were not out to get Thomas Schell, but to deny the existence of motive, justified or not, is to ignore the horrifying implications of that day. And lest we believe for a moment that Daldry is not exploiting 9/11 to generate a fixed set of emotions, pay special attention to the only scene in the film that is not seen through Oskar’s eyes. The point of view abruptly shifts to his mother taking a final phone call at the office from Thomas as she looks downtown toward the burning towers. The inclusion of that single scene does nothing except to have an excuse to include an image that we’ve already got burned in our memories and to present an example of a phone conversation we heard over and over in the ensuing months – between husbands and wives when those in the towers knew they would never get out. Leaving out that scene could have set an entirely different tone over the film, which is otherwise a professionally well-made, but sappy and not particularly interesting Hollywood film.

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