Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

There are few movies that I am less inclined to see than the "tearjerker."  I have nothing against tears or jerking, it's just...well, why watch a sad movie, when there are explosions to be had?  Sadly, I did watch Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (not ...Uncomfortably Close, as I have often misquoted the title), because it was nominated for 2011's Best Picture Oscar.  While I am not a big fan of sentimental films, the book this is based on was written by the author of Everything Is Illuminated, which is a decently weird movie.  Maybe there is something more than sad in this film...?  Maybe...?

Oskar (Thomas Horn) is a weird kid.  You might think that he is autistic or something, but apparently the tests came back inconclusive.  Anyways, he's a weird kid dealing with some heavy tragedy.  Oskar's natural weirdness makes it difficult for him to deal with the real world, much less other human beings.  Luckily, his father (Tom Hanks) understands him and goes to great lengths to get Oskar out of his shell.  For instance, dad gives Oskar frequent quests, where Oskar must follow the clues to a hidden treasure of questionable value; Oskar has fun and employs critical thinking while his dad makes sure he interacts with strangers and faces other vaguely autistic fears.
...Like touching the floor --- it's lava, you know...!
Then, everything goes pear-shaped.  Dad is, by a fluke of his schedule, caught in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, which Oskar refers to as "the worst day."  He calls home several times, but his wife (Sandra Bullock) isn't home and Oskar can't bring himself to answer. Dad dies.  A year later, an increasingly isolated Oskar stumbles across a key amidst his late father's belongings.  Believing this to be part of one of his scavenger hunts, Oskar decides to scour New York City for information leading to the destination for his mystery key.  You can't just figure out what a fairly anonymous key goes to without introducing yourself to a few dozen random strangers, though, so Oskar forces himself out of his shell to unlock his father's final puzzle.  In the meantime, I think we can all assume that he'll discover something more symbolic and puppet-stringing, right?

Look, I don't have a particular problem with stories that use September 11th as a backdrop.  It's emotionally inflammatory, but I understand that there are a lot of good stories that revolve around that date.  Honestly, I doubt that World Trade Center and United 93 are great films, but I respect the need to make them. In a way, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a lot like Bruce Springsteen's The Rising; it may not necessarily be about September 11th, but it certainly is flavored by it.

September 11 is one of those moments in history where you are supposed to remember where you were and what you were doing when the shit went down.  Personally, I was lucky enough to be in college at the time, catching the early action on morning television, before being stunned with my friends in a dormitory common room.  For the record, I still went to all my classes that day, although there weren't many that were worth attending that day.
It's not your fault, Max
Once you get beyond the emotional mindfuck that comes from a plot that deals with senseless tragedy, you might find yourself focusing on the actors.  Thomas Horn is the main character, and I completely understand if you found him irritating; he isn't exactly autistic (he's somewhere on the spectrum, though), but he's very peculiar and odd enough to stick out, even in New York City.  I can't say that his peculiarities bothered me, but I understand if they bothered you.
Okay, that tambourine irritated the shit out of me
Tom Hanks was essentially what you want Tom Hanks to be in this movie; he was the perfect dad --- loving, clever, understanding, and demanding all in one Oscar-winning doughboy.  This is the most likable I have seen Hanks in almost a decade.  Sandra Bullock played his loving wife, who balances mind-numbing grief with plot twists bold enough to almost make you think she isn't the worst parent in NYC.
Reading your kid's diary doesn't make you a good parent
Max von Sydow gave a great performance as Oskar's helper/possible relative; it wasn't too difficult of a role, but he made the lack of dialogue seem irrelevant, which is the benchmark of a good actor in a gimmicky role.  Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright also played key small parts, and they were as good as you should expect them to be in supporting roles.  In other words, "very."  The only small role that confused me was John Goodman as the abrasive doorman; he was fine, but I was surprised to see such a fine actor in such a bit part.  I was not, however, surprised to see Chris Hardwick playing a funeral director; I love the guy, but he's not much of an actor.

This isn't Stephen Daldry's first Best Picture-nominated film, you know.  He made The Reader and The Hours, not to mention Billy Elliot back in the day.  For some reason, though, I feel the need to justify Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as an Oscar contender.  This is, without a doubt, a well-made film.  There is nothing technically flawed in this movie.  If you have studied film style, you will find EL&IC a cornucopia of established film styles.  And yet...and yet...this is kind of a dull film.

Don't get me wrong.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close will make you cry.  I you don't weep, your heart is made of ash and you probably rape penguins for fun.  That doesn't make this a great film.  Instead, it feels a lot like a well-made simulation of human emotion.  The story is a little drawn out and more than a little obvious, but the pacing is excellent and the gradual reveals are expertly done.  At the very least, it makes sure to hit as many broad emotional marks as it can; if you have a strained relationship with your mother, then consider this the reason you call your mom crying this year.  If you are on solid ground with your parents...well, you might as well give them a call, since the inevitable zombie apocalypse is on its way, anyhow...

I happen to have a pretty solid relationship with my parents, so that little guilt trip didn't make Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close strike a chord for me.  Is this a great film?  Absolutely not.  It is a very well-acted and well-directed Lifetime movie of the week.  The loose connection to a tragedy makes it seem more relevant, but the key to this film is that "the worst day" shouldn't influence every single day.  I completely understand if this movie hits home for you, though, since it does strike some very basic chords.  However, if you are lucky enough to A) not be directly affected by this tragedy and B) not fight with your parents, then this film will not provide the Oscar "oomph" you may be expecting from a nominee.


  1. More irritating than touching, healing or any of the positive things one would guess such a story and cast would produce. This was just a totally manipulative film that tries so hard to be emotional that it almost strains itself and its leading “actor”, Thomas Horn who is probably one of the most annoying kids I have seen on-screen in awhile. Good review Brian.

  2. Yeah, as far as being manipulative goes, they might as well have attached marionette strings to your movie seat for this one. While part of me was offended at how obviously manipulative it was, I have to admit that if you're going to go in that direction, this is about as good as it can be done.

    As for Thomas Horn, he didn't bother me too much. The part was annoying sometimes, but it fit the general mold for someone on the autism spectrum. I'm not saying that all autistics are obnoxious, I'm just --- ah, crap, forget about it.