“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was released last Christmas in the United States, slightly after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One would like to suppose that the filmmakers realized the crassness of opening a 9/11-themed film any closer to the actual anniversary, but I’d bet good money the reason they held off for a few months was to grab a prime position in the Oscar race.
Featuring a precocious child with borderline Asperger’s syndrome — and we all know how much the Academy likes to reward those playing the mentally challenged — and shamelessly proffering 9/11 with a con man’s promise of catharsis and “closure,” “Extremely Loud” has indeed managed to snap up an entirely undeserved Best Picture nomination.
“Extremely Loud” is directed by Stephen Daldry, whose past films have scored Oscars for both Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”) and Kate Winslet (“The Reader”), so perhaps it was inevitable that expectations would be high for his latest weepy, which is based on the much-hyped novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. (Which nevertheless was trashed by reviewers at The New York Times, The New Yorker and New York Press, showing what the locals thought of Foer’s not-so-magic-realist take on 9/11.)
The film follows a 9-year-old boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who lost his father when the Twin Towers collapsed. We learn that child-genius Oskar has some mental/emotional problems involving a fear of going outside and dealing with other people. His father — played in flashback by Tom Hanks, so warm and twinkly that even Robin Williams might gag a little — would devise scavenger-hunt-like schemes designed to entice the boy out of his reclusive ways, but with dad gone, Oskar is adrift, and seriously withdrawn from his mother (an equally saintly Sandra Bullock).
One day, Oskar finds a mysterious key in his father’s closet, with the name “Black” penned on the envelope. After looking up every Black he can find in the NYC phone book, Oskar resolves to visit them all, and to solve this final mystery his father left him.
I liked the way Oskar obsessed over the key: It represented his last link to his lost father and the games they used to play, and Oskar’s need to keep that memory alive struck me as real and poignant. As opposed to just about everything else in this film, which felt extremely phony and contrived.
At times, “Extremely Loud” almost seems like an exercise in how many quirks and eccentricities you can pile onto one character before it just collapses into a big steaming heap of fakeness. OK, so Oskar recites facts at people like some kind of A.I. encyclopedia with the “Shift” button held down, so he invents things and writes letters to Stephen Hawking and never goes to school (and nobody notices) and he wears a gas mask in public and he’s able to knock on the doors of total strangers all over the five boroughs despite — lest we forget — his psychological problem in not being able to deal with people. OK, I can handle all that. But the magic tambourine that Oskar carries everywhere and jingles to calm his nerves? That was a quirk too far. Exactly how much sugar is required, Mr. Daldry, to get people to drink your Kool-Aid?
Horn’s performance is of the over-eager, over-indulged child actor type — think Macaulay Culkin on crank — and veers way off the cliff of audience sympathy into the free fall of annoying brattiness. To be fair, he doesn’t get much help from the script; lines such as “I’m even glad to have my disappointment, which is much better than nothing,” sound less like 9-year-old’s inner voice and more like a smug adult author aiming for the sort of folksy wisdom that gets you on “Oprah.”
And what does the film have to say? That Oskar is a victim, not just due to 9/11, but also because of his “issues.” (And where would modern American fiction be without those?) That Oskar’s dad was a victim, not just of terrorists but of abandonment by his own father. That the mysterious mute lodger (Max von Sydow) who lives with Oskar’s grandmother is also a victim, of the 1945 Dresden bombings. And then that so many of the people Oskar contacts while on his key quest are also victims, with their own little tragedies.
There’s the film’s big epiphany: We are all victims. In that sense, 9/11 is no more or less important a tragedy than any other. But hey, it sure makes a great topic when you’re aiming for the “Great American Novel” or an Academy Award.
While ostensibly a film of personal tragedy — albeit one so hyper-individuated that it fails to serve its purpose of standing in for collective loss — “Extremely Loud” does make one very jarring and perhaps unconscious swing into the political. In an exasperated moment, Oskar’s mother shouts at him, “I don’t know why a man flew a plane into a building! It doesn’t make sense! It will never make sense!”
This is entirely reflective of the reaction the Bush administration sought to inculcate in the American public at the time: Shut up and don’t ask why and just swallow the idea that the evil-doing Orcs from Mordor hate our freedoms, and like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky they just popped out of nowhere to zap us. Those who don’t learn from history probably read Jonathan Safran Foer; the smarter reader may benefit from Robert Baer’s “Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude.”