Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max Von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, Eva Kaminsky, Chris Hardwick.
Director: Stephen Daldry
Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures.
Written by: Eric Roth, adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer.
|“Hi. You’ve reached the Schell residence. Today is Tuesday, September 11th.” – Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn).While it may seem crass and cynical to comment that Hollywood seems desperate in its efforts to deliver THE movie about 9/11, it certainly feels that way. Since the horrible tragedies of September 11, 2001 occurred, there have been numerous films that have attempted to either use those events as a backdrop to messages of bigger and grander meaning, have simply attempted to walk us back through those events as they transpired, or have shamelessly exploited the tragedy for a cheap and tawdry romantic drama. Our next entry in the 9/11 genre is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling and critically acclaimed novel.
Directed by Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours, The Reader), Extremely Loud lines up as a film that might finally strike an acceptable balance of telling a touching and moving story amidst the backdrop of the historic events of that tragic September morning.
What anyone must understand before seeing Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is that the film goes all in on how audiences will receive the performance of Thomas Horn; a challenging and daunting performance for a first-time young actor who is asked to carry each and every scene of an emotionally challenging film on his back. If you are resistant to his performance, the ensuing 129 minutes will be rough to navigate through. And in all honesty, even if you have warmth and affection for his performance, there may be other problems which restrict a full embrace of the film. I know that’s the camp I happen to be in.
Horn plays Oskar Schell, the 10-year old son of Thomas (Tom Hanks), a mechanical engineer, and Linda (Sandra Bullock), who encourages and observes Thomas and Oskar’s close knit connection. To foster and engage with Oskar, Thomas creates treasure maps and plays unique and stimulating mental games for his son, who exhibits symptoms akin to an Asperger’s-like condition.
Naturally, it is no spoiler to reveal that Thomas is one of the victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Oskar and Linda are, in terms of their relationship, essentially ships passing along in the night. Linda is content to try and keep things as “normal” as she can for her son and Oskar continues to struggle and internalize the loss of his father. In the months since Thomas’ death, Oskar has summoned up the courage to investigate his father’s closet, untouched since Thomas’ passing. After accidentally breaking a curious blue vase, Oskar finds a key – a key that he thinks will lead him to one last quest he can go on with his father. Accelerating this notion is the discovery of the word “BLACK” located on the back of the envelope which holds the mysterious key.
What follows is a mystery of sorts where Oskar takes on the overwhelming task of attempting to match key to name and learn what secrets accompany the key his father had curiously hidden away. Oskar encounters a great number of people, including Abby and William Black (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright), and a strange elderly man (Max Von Sydow) who just recently began renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell).
Stephen Daldry directs the adaptation from Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) in a measured and steadying approach, emulating at times the regimented and orderly world that Oskar needs to function and succeed. However, Daldry and Roth necessarily attempt to take us into young Oskar’s world and the film structures every other character’s emotional needs as a problem for Oskar to shoulder and consider. On screen, Roth’s screenplay heaps the weight of the world on young Oskar’s shoulders and in all honesty, this all seemed a bit too uncomfortable and problematic for me as a viewer.
Oskar has a tragedy of his own to deal with and work through, but at just 10 years old, Oskar must set aside his grieving for learning about the elderly man with a unique and compelling characteristic and history, his grandmother’s connections to her “roommate”, her mother’s inability to find the proper way to connect with her son and share beneficially in their communal loss, and the individual struggles and personal sadness in the lives of those he meets on his mysterious journey around the Boroughs of New York City. The power of the words found in the novel are less than believable in Roth’s screenplay adaptation and I mentally checked out against my will, feeling much more compassion for Oskar but for all the wrong reasons. At some point, this boy needs to be afforded the chance to grieve at losing his father, no?
Eventually, the film finally hits a true and honest emotional stride, with a tremendous couple of scenes between mother and son. Unspoken secrets and emotions between mother and son are beautifully shared and a sequence involving a disclosure from Linda to Oskar regarding his quest should have most everyone reaching for a tissue, handkerchief, or tear-wiping instrument of their choice.
However, a strong performance, if not a polarizing one, from Thomas Horn, and a few moving moments simply do not do enough and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close struggles mightily in finding proper balance between moving and affecting drama and overwrought, heavy-handed contrived sentimentality. I do not need flash-framed images of Hanks’ final moments to understand the overriding emotional arc of all of this, just as I do not need a film framed around a 10-year old boy’s loss to then meander around the emotional stories of several other people before finally committing to its subject. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close never finds a proper beat or rhythm and lacks the credibility it needs to succeed as a sturdy and compelling story.
While not a bad film per se, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a curiously joyless one, ponderous even. I recognize the novel’s emotional impact but found the cinematic adaptation overcompensating to hit those same marks. And keep in mind…I was greatly impressed by Thomas Horn’s work here and find him to be a stunning discovery. I cannot imagine how much worse I would have found this movie to be, had I been cold and resistant to the uniqueness of Oskar’s quirks and personality.
Should I See It?
If you read and were a fan of the book, there is no question this is a film you have been waiting to see.
Thomas Horn is a discovery. His performance will be a challenge for some and I have no earthly idea if he moves on to more roles from here, but he is Oskar Schell and in my mind, is staggeringly good here.
Fans of Stephen Daldry’s work will be interested in seeing him tackle something bigger and grander than he has ever attempted before.
For many, a movie focusing on 9/11 will always be simply too soon.
There are some unnecessary and jarring images in the film, which I might argue are gratuitous, unneeded, and indefensible. Many have recoiled from the heavy-handedness and blunt force impact of the message that Extremely Loud brings forth. For those to give this a chance and completely repel from it, I completely understand.
Will foster discussions undoubtedly, but instead of talking about the characters and any connections viewers may have to the people on screen, the conversation may swing the other way and focus on whether or not Hollywood and the literary community need to take a break from trying to document the 9/11 experience. So many films have missed the mark, that it is something studios need to strongly consider. Why this movie is needed is a fair and probing question.