I’m a pretty calm guy. I wasn’t for a really long time. And then at some point in my life, my ability to give a shit just sort of broke. It broke way too much though to the point that I occasionally wander through life in a completely apathetic and detached haze. I’m starting to get better, but that was definitely a period in my life. So, when the existence of a film is enough to piss me off, there’s probably something fundamentally unethical about it. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a supremely infuriating film that it’s safe to characterize as kitschy, sentimental, trite, and exploitative. Even the strength of some of the better scenes in the film and two superb performances couldn’t make me forgive this film for its very nature which offended me on a deep and personal level. I might have only been twelve years old when 9/11 happened and I may not have personally known any one who lost their life in that horrific tragedy, but I’ve got enough brains to know when someone is trying to cash in on a national tragedy. This is one of those moments. Unfortunately for the film, it wouldn’t have even been saved had the story involved some fictional tragedy for all of its cheap and unearned “emotional” overkill.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn in his big screen premiere) is a precocious and incredibly intelligent young boy (that may or may not have a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome) whose friendship with his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks) is the only real thing in his life. They create adventures together to help Oskar’s problem-solving skills as well to force him to increase his social skills. When Oskar’s father dies in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar withdraws into a year long state of shock and trauma. However, when Oskar accidentally breaks a vase when he enters his father’s closet for the first time since his death, Oskar finds a key and the only clue is the name “Black” written on the back of the envelope. Oskar believes this key is part of the last adventure his father had planned for him. Getting every person with the last name Black from the NYC phone book, Oskar sets out on a quest to find who the key might have belonged to and what lock it could open so he can finally say goodbye to his father.
Before I get into the ways in which this film is an unmitigated failure/offensive (to anyone who isn’t cheaply manipulated), let me at least point out its good points. For his film debut, Thomas Horn was astounding. Unless that kid actually has Asperger’s syndrome, he did an excellent job of capturing the rage, grief, vulnerability, and terror that Oskar was experiencing every day. Actually, he played Oskar so well that I almost have to wonder how much he was acting or if he was just like that in real life. I was honestly more impressed with him than Brad Pitt in Moneyball (for which Pitt received an Oscar nomination). Along with Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz in Hugo, it was a great year for child actors. Similarly, Max von Sydow more than earned his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the renter living with Oskar’s grandmother that may or may not have been Oskar’s biological grandfather. His character was a mute but even without uttering a single spoken word the entire film, he displayed more emotion and characterization in his short time on screen than the wooden and ineffective Sandra Bullock could in the whole film. When Max von Sydow and Thomas Horn were both on the screen at the same time, they were the only moments in the film where I felt truly engaged with the material enough to overlook its structural flaws.
Unfortunately, that only represents a small portion of the film. The rest of it has the film turning what could have been an interesting meditation on loss and tragedy (as well as the reality of mental illness in children since that child definitely has some type of autism) into jingoistic feel good schlock. We’re not still in a “too soon” period from 9/11 to make decent 9/11 related material. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 was an excellent meditation on national tragedy and the small acts of heroism that kept 9/11 from being even worse. That film felt authentic even if we had to guess about much of what was happening on that plane. With the exceptions of the scenes where Oskar was really being forced to deal with the reality of his father’s death, nothing about this film felt real or genuine. It felt manufactured to elicit a very specific set of responses. And the fact that it used such a terrible event in American history to garner these reactions (rather than making us care more about the characters or making them seem more defined and alive) is what makes this film so offensive. This movie doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about 9/11. The characters aren’t engaging enough to justify the setting they’re using. The writing isn’t clear or focused enough to support the muddled and sprawling aspect of the narrative. Also, I enjoy slow films but the two hours (and some change) that I spent watching this movie felt like they dragged on more slowly than the four hours of Lawrence of Arabia.
If you couldn’t tell, I didn’t like this film. It bothered me (and not in that good Todd Solondz kind of way), and I found myself making frustrated sighs the entire film when there another instance where I felt the film was trying to cheaply manipulate my emotions. However, my dad and little sister both enjoyed it, and by the end of the film, my dad was crying pretty profusely (normally, I’m the crier in the family during sad/touching/very happy moments in movies but my eyes were completely dry during this film). So, maybe I’m just a broken human being because I wasn’t affected by this movie whatsoever. So, the way I look at it, is that if you enjoy cheap and emotionally manipulative and insignificant films (i.e. The Help), then maybe you’ll enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. For everyone who’s a little more cynical and skeptical and knows when movies are deliberately trying to take advantage of you, you should steer clear.
Final Score: C+