Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
The biggest surprise on the morning of the Academy Award nominations was the inclusion of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the nine nominees for Best Picture. Critics have universally derided the 9/11 drama, becoming the lowest critically rated Best Picture nominee in the last 30 years, according to some awards pundits. The second lowest rated Best Picture nominee in that same span of time? The Reader, also directed by Stephen Daldry. Under new Academy voting rules, a nominee has to garner at least five percent of first place votes on members’ ballots. That means that at least 250 Academy members voted this crass, manipulative, off-putting, wrongheaded, exploitative movie as the best film of the year, thereby voluntarily divulging they must not have seen a single other movie for 2011.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) was nine years old when his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), was killed on September 11, 2001. He was in one of the World Trade Center buildings and left six frantic phone messages before perishing. In the ensuing months after the disaster, Oskar is lashing out against his mother (Sandra Bullock) who spends all day in bed. Then one day he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet inside an envelope labeled “Black.” Oskar’s father used to send his son on a series of adventures around New York, looking for a fabled “sixth borough,” forcing Oskar to confront his numerous fears and insecurities. Oskar looks through the New York phone book and catalogs over 400 separate people with the last name of Black in the five boroughs. He’s convinced that his father has left one last hidden message somewhere in the city.
My main sticking point was that I found Oskar to be an insufferable, bratty, little jerk. I understand he’s hurting and he’s trying to work through his pain. I understand he is gripped by irrational fears and has a hard time relating to others. I understand that Oskar’s father even tested him for Asperger’s, though the results were negative. Some people will try and explain away Oskar’s callous behavior in sweeping generalizations having to do with the ignorance of children or some undiagnosed medical problem. I’ve known people with Asperger’s syndrome and while Oskar fits a few of the superficial tics, being a jerk is not a symptom, sorry. He’s so mean to his grieving mother and indifferent about other people that I wanted to slap him. I found him to be unsympathetic and wholly irritating. I found his unsupervised journeys for cutesy quests throughout New York City to be dubious. His parents just let their ten-year-old socially awkward kid run around New York City by himself at all hours? The movie goes in a bad direction when it partners this talky nuisance up with a silent old man, played by the wonderful Max von Sydow (the movie’s only other Oscar nomination; another stretch I’d say).
Here’s a breakdown of my thought process: Oskar comes home on 9/11 to find the last recorded messages of his father, including an admission of love for his family. Oskar runs out and buys an identical answering machine and sneakily hides the original, denying his mother, a grieving widow, the chance to hear her husband’s voice one last time. Screw that kid. I’m sorry but that’s what went through my mind and to me he never recovered. His actions are inexcusable. Then he gets mad because his mom sleeps all day. She’s grieving you little snot! And then he has the gall to tell her, “I wish it was you instead!” It’s a moment intended to draw gasps, ripping the scab clear off whatever pretensions mother and son have with one another. But it just made me dislike the kid even more. The fact that even by the film’s ending emotional catharsis Oskar still hasn’t shared the answering machine messages with his mother is reprehensible.
The other factor that caused me to despise the main character was how Horn proves to be a dreadful actor. This is the first acting role for the former teen Jeopardy champ. He’s able to spit the rapid-fire, idiosyncratic dialogue burdened with cumbersome detail. However, Horn gives a terribly mannered performance. He has this annoying manner of over enunciating every single word, getting lost in a character affectation, always stagy and artificial. You combine a bad actor with an aggravating character and make them the lead of the story, and I’m already daydreaming possible murder scenarios (I don’t condone child murder mind you — I’d make it look like an accident). As for Oskar’s parents, Hanks is hardly in the movie and Bullock does shockingly well, nailing her most emotional moments. I’d rather see this movie from her point of view, trying to make sense of the insensible to her challenging son who hates her.
Daldry wishes to use the backdrop of 9/11 to talk about important items. It’s too bad that his movie has nothing legitimate to say about healing. I was assuming that over the course of the film Oskar was going to run into a diverse collection of people, all healing, all with their own stories of pain, and then he would learn that the real treasure was the community of strangers he had brought together. Nope! Oskar runs into a gamut of fine actors, including Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright, but they all become mere baton-passers to a self-involved kid. They and their stories don’t matter. The lock to our missing key doesn’t matter. There’s a final revelation concerning Oskar’s mother and her activities to benefit her son that seems entirely implausible. Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have transformed Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about collective grief into a strangely myopic narrative given the scale of the suffering.
The movie is so transparently manipulative, shamelessly exploiting 9/11 anxieties and trauma to tell its intolerable little quest. In no way is 9/11 meaningfully connected with the overall story of loss. Oskar’s father could just have readily died in a war or had a brain aneurism. What 9/11 is used for, however, is an easy device to stir the audience’s emotions. Daldry will flash back to it at seemingly random moments in the narrative, to goose the audience into feeling gloomy. I’m sure many people will sit through this movie and feel moments of genuine sadness, but that’s because the filmmakers are shamelessly manipulating the raw feelings we have over a national tragedy. It’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat seeing the towers smoking, frantic calls to missing or doomed loved ones, and final recordings bearing the weight of compounded dread. It’s not too soon to talk about the psychic wounds of that terrible day but I strongly resent people who exploit those memories. There are moments that are so misguided and yet given the Hollywood gloss of an awards-bait picture. The very opening image is of Tom Hanks free-falling to his death. Oskar’s little picture book he constructs at the end of his journey includes a final page with the World Trade Center. And there’s a little slip that when pulled creates a picture of a man falling up back into the tower. What? Is that supposed to be a good thing?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is such a misguided, crass venture that’s also extremely shameless and incredibly cloying. The main character is unlikable, exasperating, and portrayed by a rather amateurish child actor. Daldry’s hackneyed direction will settle on treacle and contrived sentiment whenever possible, but the emotions never feel properly earned. He’s pressing buttons and forcing tears, and several viewers will be unaware of how efficiently they were manipulated into having a moving experience at the theater. I know I can’t be alone is seeing through the manipulation and feeling indignant about the ordeal. I’m not against tackling the difficult subject of 9/11 in movies (I declared United 93 the best film of 2006). Here’s a good question for you filmgoers out there: is there that big of a difference between this movie and 2010’s unpleasant teen drama, Remember Me? Both use the 9/11 attacks to cover narrative and characterization deficiencies, vulgarly exploiting our feelings of the events to engender feeling, and both don’t belong anywhere near an awards stage.
Nate’s Grade: C-