It's September 11, 2001, and the World Trade Center towers have just come down. But it gets worse: Tom Hanks was among the dead. Beloved personality; American everyman; the World's Greatest Dad.
So goes the emotional resonance of Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", the story of young Oskar (Thomas Horn) and his obsessed journey to discover what he's sure is his dead dad's final message to him.
Oskar is the ultimate free-range kid, with all of New York City as his playground. But this youngster isn't interested in play. Back in the day, Oskar delighted in unraveling the riddles and scavenger hunts that his dad would concoct for him. Now that his dad is gone, he's left only with his memories, an answering machine full of his father's final desperate unanswered calls, and a key. What the key unlocks is anyone's guess, but certainly it will be worth the journey for both Oskar and for us, right? Right?!?
As Oskar's mourning mom (Sandra Bullock) opts to back off from the life of her troubled son, the boy falls in with a nomadic old man known only as "The Renter" (he rents Oskar's grandmother's spare room) as a partner in his quest to discover the key's treasure. The Renter (Max von Sydow) has taken a vow of silence, which is just the perfect inconvenient button on his cloak of mystery. He communicates by scribbling messages, mostly about how he's very old and could really use a break from all this relentless searching. But nevertheless, the kid drags poor Max von Sydow on a wild goose chase all over New York City in what is supposed to be a metaphor for post 9/11 America. If such a cinematic metaphor can truly ever be satisfying, then this is not it.
Somewhere in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", there's an emotionally and intellectually solid story waiting to get out. Perhaps that can be had via the source novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. In Dalry's adaptation, the hoped-for honest processing of the September 11, 2001 tragedy is shellacked with belabored points and contrived situations that don't add up to much. The kid is barely ever real. It's convenient for the screenplay that he suffers Asperger's syndrome (or something resembling it) so that he can plausibly spout litanies of statistics and facts that no ordinary kid that age would ever care about, much less have committed to memory. But the spouted facts and statistics (transparently) underscore the film's whole purpose as an allegory of how modern America has lost its innocence and direction The Day Tom Hanks Died.
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is not the worst thing in the world. Truth be told, the film is plenty watchable. But that's about it. It suffers for it's own self-importance. We're now ten-plus years on from the soul-ripping day the film depicts, so the claim of "too soon" is officially no longer applicable. But that's no excuse to trade upon the still visible scars of it all for the sake of a semi-precious quest film about a boy, his mysterious key, and a more mysterious old man. If I wanted that, I'd watch "Hugo" again. I do think that as a nation, the United States might finally be ready for some honest and solid filmic explorations of 9/11 and the seismic shift it wrought. In Daldry's watered down version of it, the U.S. is the Oskar character, striped of innocence and desperately trying to unlock the meaning of it all. Max von Sydow is the silent foreign heritage we reluctantly drag along with us everywhere we go, and the key is an arbitrary macguffin we've yet to figure out the purpose of, other than it may or may not involve Viola Davis (who, in 2011 proved once and for all that she is so much better than the self-important mush she often appears in).
And so it's finally happened. The inevitable occurrence, in which Stephen Daldry has finally made a film that the Academy Awards will have no choice but to overlook. Up until now, the AMPAS has had an inexplicable crush on the guy's work. But this time, his name will not be called. The Oscar will not be going to Oskar's film. Tom Hanks died for nothing. And the misguided prestige picture that is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" can't get its figurative head around that.
- Jim Tudor
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