Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Release Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2012)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy living in New York, whose father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed in the 9/11 bombings. The events of the day - Oskar was let out of school early and arrives at home to hear six phone messages left by his father, trapped on the 105th floor of the North Tower, before watching it collapse - are relayed via flashback.

A year has passed, and Oskar and his mother Linda (Sanda Bullock) are struggling to heal, and they have been unable to maintain a healthy relationship because Linda is unable to explain to Oskar why the towers were attacked and why they buried an empty coffin to mourn his father. When Oskar is exploring his father's closet, he knocks over a blue vase and finds a key inside an envelope labelled with the name "Black". 



Believing it is a message from his father, and a puzzle for him to solve, he sets out to meet every person in the Five Boroughs with the surname Black (all 417 of them) and see if they had known his father and if they have an answer to the mystery of the key. He creates an extensive filing system and scrapbook, marks residences on map, cordoning off zones, and visiting strangers on foot on a schedule every Saturday. Along the way, he befriends a mute elderly gentleman (Max Von Sydow), who is renting a room from his grandmother. He accompanies Oskar on his search - proving to be a confidant, and source of inspiration and wisdom.

Despite a string of negative reviews, which has caused the film to suffer at the box office, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close received a shock Oscar nomination for Best Picture. ‘Emotionally manipulative’, ‘exploitative’ and ‘cloying’are all terms that have been thrown around to describe reviewers' displeasure in Stephen Daldry’s (Billy Elliot, The Reader) adaptation of the beloved Jonathan Safran Foer novel. It is adapted by acclaimed screenwriter Eric Roth (The Insider, Munich). While many of these criticisms have some weight, to base a critique on 'hating the kid' just doesn't cut it for me.

I think that is where I will start. Oskar Schell is an intriguing character, and while it can be argued that he has been written to a point of extreme originality, I actually embraced the fact that he wasn’t just a regular kid. He certainly possesses some traits that could prove aggravating to some people - he has a non-stop smart mouth, he is moody and hyperactive, and he spends the entire film walking around shaking a tambourine to ease his nerves. But, when you take into account that he may be suffering from autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and possesses awkward social skills and an endless array of phobias (relayed to the audience through a particularly cringe-worthy montage), his adoration for his father and the unique relationship they had, and the weight of guilt he is carrying, I think his behaviour is understandable. I really felt for him, and one particular late night exchange between Oskar and his mother brought tears to my eyes.



Thomas and Linda adopt an odd style of parenting, to say the least. Thomas is the 'perfect' dad, and it is by encouraging Oskar to undertake scavenger hunts and reconnaissance missions, investigating for evidence of strange geographical phenomena, and interacting with strangers, that he attempts to assist with his upbringing. Whether letting Oskar hang about in Central Park in the middle of the night is responsible, isn’t really a question. For most of the film you wonder why this kid is allowed to wander through the Five Boroughs of New York City alone. Why does every person he meets along the way treat him with kindness and invite him in for tea, tell him stories, and let him play with their kids? People aren’t this nice - even if Oskar comes to share a sad tale. I thought this was actually a distracting feature. It all makes sense (well, more sense) following the downright implausible reveal near the ending.

On a technical level, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a lavish production. There is the usual classy work from cinematographer Chris Menges, while Alexandre Desplat once again provides a beautiful score. Yes, it swells in the manipulative fashion, but is mostly quite subtle and pleasant. Through the overly enthusiastic editing, I guess Daldry is trying to place the audience inside Oskar’s head – a place that many viewers would rather steer clear of – but I think on that level, he does a good job. Oskar narrates the story. From memory, the only time the film isn’t centred on his reflections and quest is when Linda talks with Thomas for the last time. A truly unnecessary scene. While the film’s backdrop is 9/11, and covers a city also in healing mode, it is through Oskar’s unique story where sense of the event is trying to be made.

The cast is very strong. I thought Thomas Horn was sensational. He is given a character that could be insufferable, but he successfully manages to make a viewer sympathize with him. Some of this is definitely down to blatant emotional manipulation on the filmmaking level, but I still think, for a debut performance, he showed a lot of promise. Surrounding him is a cast of veterans. Tom Hanks and especially Sandra Bullock (better here than anything I have seen her in – yes, even The Blind Side) are excellent. The always-classy Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright give their characters some life. The most veteran performer, Max Von Sydow, playing ‘The Renter’, arguably a more contrived character than Oskar (one who doesn’t talk, as opposed to one who doesn’t stop talking), gives his character everything he can, and draws genuine feeling too. I don’t agree with his Oscar nomination, however.


Thematically, the scope of the film is enormous, and it is a trying experience. There are some moments of humour and joy, but for the most part it is a pretty morose journey. There is just too much going on, though. We have the 9/11 attacks, which are relayed several times throughout the film – as both Sandra Bullock and Oskar experience them – so we have New York as a city recovering from the event. We have a child searching for a way to make sense of his father’s death, trying to relinquish a burden of guilt he has been carrying since the ‘Worst Day’, and ultimately understand and be more at ease with the world around him. We have father/son relationships (and this doesn’t just include Thomas and Oskar), as well as the stories of several other characters. It is tough trying to sensitively balance all of these different relationships, and maintain the film’s forward progression. All that is driving the story is Oskar’s quest (a seemingly impossible mission), and though Daldry is not successful in providing a balance, or refraining from being exploitative and heavy-handed with the melodrama, doesn’t mean there aren’t admirable qualities about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Contrary to belief, it is not the weakest film amongst the Best Picture contenders. That doesn’t mean it should have been nominated, but I was genuinely surprised how moved I was on occasions. I felt for Oskar, and as unlikely as it sounds, I embraced his quest. The film is problematic, no question about it. It is contrived, structurally messy, way too long, and features angering moments (Oskar putting on a gas mask when boarding the subway, and Tom Hanks’ face on a falling body – these images should not have been in the film, period) and it blatantly holds off on revealing Oskar’s big emotional moment so that another tear-puller can be squeezed out of it. But, it doesn’t deserve the hate that has been thrown at it. I’m not going to defend it until I die, or anything, but when I left the cinema, I had no idea what to make of it. Having let it settle, I fell on the positive side of the fence. It is not essential viewing, but it is probably the best film released this week - and I think fans of the novel will find it satisfying.

My Rating: ★★★ (B-)

12 comments:

  1. Well-said.

    I'm with you in thinking that this film has been unfairly shredded. Far more than being "The 9/11 Movie", it's a story of personal discovery about a young boy whose father meant the world to him, and who is desperately hoping for one more moment with him.

    Great review sir.

    In completely unrelated news, could I ask a small favour. When my site first launched, it did so with my site description repeating three times. Could you edit my listing in your blogroll so that all that info lists only once? Every time I see that I feel a bit embarrassed.

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    1. I wasn't going to write a review, because I was situated in the middle. It has been unfairly shredded, but I certainly didn't love it. I just didn't feel like I could justify what I thought about the film without saying the wrong thing. But, yes, it is certainly more than a 9/11 film, and I thought the boy's journey was really extraordinary - and Thomas Horn was impressive.

      I have changed your listing in my Blogroll. Sorry for having it listed as I did. My BRoll got reset recently (so adding your site in by URL brought it up that way)

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  2. I don't find those moments that anger you as objectionable (why is it now okay for films to use the world wars for catharsis but 9/11 is untouchable?) but the film is messy (both a positive and a negative) and it has its issues but ultimately I liked it. Glad you did too, in part.

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  3. Man, I hated damn near everything about this movie. However, I did not care that it was manipulative and exploitative, that didn’t bother me at all. I hated it because it made no damn sense, logistically. Maybe I harp on continuity a little too much as it’s concerned with “serious films,” but if you’ve ever spent an afternoon in New York City, you know it is geographically impossible to walk to all the places that kid did in the amount of time he did.

    I also didn’t understand why Tom Hanks sounded like a 70-year-old Jewish woman from the Bronx on his 9/11 voicemails, but then sounded like a German Tom Hanks in his other flashback scenes. Wright, Davis and Von Sydow were great, because they’re always great, but I thought this movie was genuinely horrible.

    I do, however, agree with you that it wasn’t the weakest among the Best Pic nominees. War Horse man… good god.

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    1. Haha, love the comment on Hanks's voice Alex!

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    2. Alex, I did read your comments on the geographical implausibility of his quest, and as I have never been to New York I cannot comment on that. Still, it seemed like he had worked out every Saturday into zones, so I just bought that if he was moving quick, it could all be done. As for the voice, I didn't notice the discrepancy either. But, for Tom Hanks, it was peculiar. I'm never going to see it again, but I found myself to be surprisingly moved, and never bored. I understand your reasoning, and I'm not saying it is a good film - but it wasn't too bad.

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  4. What a terrific review. I completely agree about the performances, Thomas Horn was really amazing and Bullock was the best she ever was. I didn't mind the movie being maniuplative I thought it was just too messy, didn't really know if it wants to be a fairytale or a serious drama.

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    1. Mmm. It tries to squeeze in way too much - the way the flashbacks are just thrown in there all over the place. It also took too long for Max Von Sydow to appear. I thought he would play a bigger role. I had no relatives in 9/11 so I can only imagine what a traumatic experience it would be. Watching this child try to recover from losing his best friend was at times inspiring. To see people bond over a tragedy with the kindness they express (though it is unrealistic here) is nice to see. Thanks for reading and commenting Sati. I was proud of getting this review done. I wasn't going to write anything, and then i got an urge. Funny how it works.

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    2. Yeah, sometimes it just comes in out of nowhere - I had no idea what to write halfway through Young Adult and then when the movie was over I just kept writing and writing like crazy :)

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    3. I love it when that happens. I definitely could have written more about YOUNG ADULT. My most discussed film this year was actually THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TAT. It was one of my longest reviews and I had to leave so much out.

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  5. Great review. I also didn't love the movie, but I didn't hate it either. Some moments were too long and played out, and some things probably worked quite well in a book (Oskar's narration, including counting his lies, etc) but not so much in a film. I think this film should never have been made into a film as it makes so much more sense book-wise. You can get away with a lot more, and you can build a better suspension of disbelief.

    It doesn't deserve the rip it got, but I think most people went into this thinking "Best Picture" nominee (or it had been slated as so), and were disappointed. Had it not had that background, it would've been better recieved by critics and bloggers. Good review!

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    1. I have heard the book is amazing, and I think it is a shame that many fans will be disappointed by the film version. I think the voicemail stuff was much too played out - and facets of the film that felt contrived and implausible can be better established in the novel to avoid that sort of reaction. It is definitely flawed, but I thought it was solid - and much more affecting than I expected it to be. Thanks for reading Heather!

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