A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling 2005 novel of the same name. The book is beloved by many for its stylistic rule-breaking that includes the use of graphic elements in addition to words. Although I haven’t read the novel, I wondered while watching this long-winded extravaganza, whether it might have worked better in its original form. I felt so disconnected from this movie that I wanted to default to smart-aleck reviewer mode by describing it as Extremely Long and Incredibly Clichéd. But you deserve better, AccessReelers.
The film’s 9 year-old hero is Oskar Schell (Horn); an intellectual lad who has trouble being comfortable in his own skin. He has a nervous disposition that grows worse after the death of his father, Thomas (Hanks). We see Thomas through the boy’s eyes as a man who creates intelligent fun and makes his son think. He invents adventures for the boy with the aim that he discovers more about the people of the city. The underlying strand here is that Thomas is aware how unusual Oskar is and that he is attempting to encourage his son’s range of social contact. Thomas keeps Oskar grounded. If anyone could end up a loner, it’s this clever, strange boy.
Oskar is the film’s fundamental problem. The character lacks empathy for others and is almost entirely self-involved. As true as this might be for a 9-year-old, especially one who has lost a parent, this makes Oskar a difficult protagonist to like. His mother Linda (Bullock) can’t reach him and in an odd way, neither can we. For almost an hour, he is a whirlwind of activity and voiceover. The character never slows down and we are hardly ever given a moment that we might identify with.
However, a film that has the 9/11 attacks as a central event must eventually evoke an emotional response. Thomas is in a meeting on the 105th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hits. He calls home and gets the answering machine. He eventually gets through to Linda at her work. She can see the World Trade Center as they speak. You cannot fail to be moved by this. This sequence is underlined by reality and memory; the poignancy and dread of this last moment of contact is also the film’s truest moment.
Oskar’s journey to discover the meaning of the key that he finds in his father’s closet, brings him into contact with the people of New York City. Some of these encounters are memorable, but many are just montaged into the margins.
Director Stephen Daldry (BILLY ELLIOT, THE HOURS) elicits strong performances from the cast. Eleven-year-old Thomas Horn plays Oskar and he is a terrific actor. He is in practically every scene and his energy and presence suggest we will see him again. I thought the casting of Hanks and Bullock was rather safe, but was no doubt to provide some balance to having a complete unknown as the lead. The film’s ace-in-the-hole in casting terms is veteran Swedish actor Max von Sydow, who plays a character known as “The Renter”.
The Renter is an old German man who lives with Oskar’s fraternal grandmother. He is unable to speak as a result of an unspecified accident in childhood. Von Sydow’s silent acting is brilliant. His face is the most expressive thing in the film. He humanises Oskar and for his time on screen he gives this story a beating heart.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE has received some lukewarm reviews, perhaps because it doesn’t work as a coherent whole. The parts that do work are about families. When the other members of Oskar’s clan are in the picture, then we are engaged. When other characters like Abby and William Black are involved (the excellent Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) then we have something to connect with. When the film is just poor Oskar running and searching, then we, the audience, are searching, too–looking for a way in.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE is screening in Australia currently and runs for 129 minutes. I rated it 2.5/5.