Friday, February 17, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Dir. Stephen Daldry (2011)

Is it still too soon for a film about 9/11? That criticism was levied against Paul Greengrass's United 93 when it was released in 2006. In my mind, United 93 was a riveting and emotionally draining experience because it was handled in a realistic and even handed manner. The same cannot be said for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a cloying and overly precious adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 book. The method in which the film tackles its subject matter with such saccharine sentimentalization shouldn't come as a surprise as the screenplay was penned by Eric Roth, who also adapted Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Extremely Loud deals with similar themes to Foer's debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, which was also made into a film by actor/director Liev Schreiber. Both are idiosyncratic works dealing with a protagonist on a journey to learn about themselves and their family. In Illuminated, it was the author himself. In Extremely Loud, it is eleven-year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn). Oskar's parents had them tested for Asperger's Syndrome, but the results were inconclusive. He has a hard time finding his place in the world and carries a tambourine to soothe his anxieties.

Oskar's father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), seems to be the only one who understands him. He tasks his son with a series of scavenger hunts to assist the boy in interacting with the outside world. Thomas is killed in the terrorist attacks leaving Oskar desperate to find meaning in his death. Oskar's mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), doesn't have the easy rapport with Oskar her husband did and struggles to cope.

One day, he rifles through his father's belongings and discovers a key inside an envelope marked with the word, "Black." Oskar decides to look up everyone with the last name of Black in the five boroughs believing this is a final message from his late father. Along the way, Oskar gets a sidekick in an elderly mute man (Max von Sydow), who is renting a room from Thomas's mother. Known only as The Renter, he communicates through a notepad and tattoos of the words, "Yes" and "No," on his hands.

Oskar's journey encapsulates New Yorkers from all walks of life and symbolizes the romanticized view of how the city and we as a country came together after the tragedy. For the most part, these scenes feel very contrived and truncated, a meaningful message lost as it is distilled into a series of montages. Very rarely are there moments of genuine emotion. Oskar's visit to the first name on his list is the most powerful sequence in the film, due in no small part to the presence of Viola Davis, who seems incapable of giving a bad performance. In Doubt, Davis was only in one substantial scene opposite Meryl Streep, yet still garnered high praise and an Oscar nomination. She again spins gold out of a minuscule role as Abby Black, a woman in the middle of a messy divorce. Her husband (Jeffrey Wright) is rushing out of the house when Oskar comes to visit.

Wright is also solid in his supporting role as is Max von Sydow as a character that is both cartoonishly eccentric and heartbreakingly bare. As Oskar's parents, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock give fine performances, trading on their reputations for being so likable. Not faring so well is Thomas Horn, a young man discovered through his run on Teen Jeopardy. The entire film hinges on Horn, who's stilted line readings works well in short bursts to accentuate the character's detached nature. However, he is unable to handle large portions of dialogue. This is very problematic due to Oskar's continuous narration throughout the movie, a leftover remnant from the original novel.

No matter how hard they try, there is an aura of crassness that sullies whatever well meaning themes the filmmakers are attempting to portray. How can you not be revolted by the opening sequence featuring close-ups of Tom Hanks's body as plummets through the sky in slow motion? Another shot later on sees Hanks dropping out of the Tower and directly into the camera. In yet another scene, Oskar has printed out pictures from the internet of a body tumbling out of the building. He wonders if that was his father.

Director Stephen Daldry is responsible for three of the worst Best Picture nominees in recent memory, The Hours, The Reader, and now Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Released to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Extremely Loud feels less like a soothing salve on a gaping wound and more like a band-aid ripped off your arm in the most painful manner.

Rating ** (*****)

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