Movie Review: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Written by Alicia Kaiser January 31, 2012

Extremely satisfactory and incredibly awkward.

Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s award-winning novel of the same name, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a film with big shoes to fill.  Despite the fact that this movie has been nominated for two Oscars this year (Best Picture and Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Max von Sydow), I’m sure that I am not the only one who had a whole lot of beef with this movie*.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows the secret plots and creative adventures of precocious Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a nine-year-old boy living in New York City. The plot is driven by childhood bereavement as Oskar, one year later, still tries to cope with the tragic loss of his father who was in the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

Based on the spirited reconnaissance missions (fancy scavenger hunts) that he used to play with his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), – a paternal plot employed in order to get Oskar out of his shell and to shake his antisocial tendencies – Oskar develops his own mission one year after his father’s death in order to keep his memory alive. We learn through flashbacks that Thomas had intended the missions to be a learning experience for his son. He was instilling the value that “if things were easy to find, they wouldn’t be worth finding” – a sentiment, we see, which Oskar absolutely takes to heart.

After sneaking into his father’s closet for the first time after “the worst day”, he finds in the body of a blue vase a mysterious key inside of an envelope with one written clue: “Black”. Taking it upon himself to find the key’s home, Oskar heads out on a grand adventure with the intentions of both preserving the memory of his father and of finding his own place in the world. An adventure, though so futile and disparaging for the viewer to behold, which is filled with personal growth, failures, successes and (what should have been) touching encounters with complete strangers among the hubbub of busy New York life.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is borne to be sentimental; it’s meant to be feel-good and to induce a little bit of melodramatic weepiness. The story is heart rendering, powerful and the emotions boiled out of paternal loss are universal. But the character development/value-building of our narrating first-person protagonist who is supposed to be loving, different, special, beautiful (I’m sorry, my “love of the book bias” is getting in the way here), director Stephen Daldry just poops all over it.

As Daldry casts debut actor Thomas Horn – adorable in his own right – to play our hero, his creation is problematic. I still am not confident who is at fault here either – Horn’s acting or the writing. Rather than portray the articulately amicable trooper hunting innocently for his father’s presence, a character that has been breaking hearts in the novel for years, Daldy and screenwriter Eric Roth turn Oskar into something difficult – something pretentious and very very challenging to stand behind. Oskar’s regal and domineering attitude toward his family and friends is, in a sense, too real and too alienating to be enjoyable. He is so apparently troubled with grief, coupled with an already present air of autistic-like sociopathy, that Oskar successfully has the audience riled with indignant fury at almost every opportunity.

Daldry’s Oskar is intelligent and gifted, yes, but he’s also snappy, bitchy, spiteful and altogether a pain in the ass. I was horrified that I was unable to love – let alone like – a character that I’ve held dear to my own heart for years. In fact, our narrator is so alienating that his personal quest to venture the five boroughs of New York looking for the home of his father’s mystery key becomes, in a word, annoying. As I put myself in the shoes of a viewer being introduced to the story for the first time, I found myself asking some pretty alarming questions. Mainly in the ballpark of “Geez. Why is this kid being such a dick?”

Now that I’ve more than undermined our protagonist, I must attest to the film’s visual appeal. To his credit, Stephen Daldry absolutely picks up on the visually breathtaking imagery of the story. The two-hour movie is nothing if not beautiful.  Viewed from the perspective of a boy overcoming his numerous fears of the universe by discovering life and humanity anew, the viewer’s gaze is filtered through a young and naive perspective lens. Oskar is learning to love the beauty of life before our eyes and as he ceaselessly picks up on the tiny nuances of our everyday, the viewer is encouraged to recall their ambiguous powers.

For example, when Oskar barges in on the home of Abby Black (Viola Davis), the first Black surname listed in the phone book, she is a middle-aged African American woman on the threshold of a divorce. Obviously upset, Abby still entertains Oskar despite the fact that her husband is packing up at leaving her at the same moment. Maybe a distraction was warranted. Nine-year old Oskar finds her vulnerability enchanting and intoxicating; and, without pretense, expectation or rationale, he instantly falls in love with her. Suddenly, this ordinary woman, to our eyes, through Oskar, becomes the most beautiful thing. Oskar takes a picture of her to capture her tears, her sadness, and he irrevocably places her in our hearts forever.

Despite the movie’s obvious failures, there is some powerful stuff going on here. I’ll admit the tears were flowing freely at more than one opportunity. Max von Sydow’s performance is, in fact, as good as, if not better than, they say. As the mysterious old mute man renting a suite in Oskar’s grandma’s apartment (he is known in the film solely as The Renter), Max von Sydow can break hearts without even opening his mouth.

His entire performance is comprised of stoic observations at Oskar’s difficult qualities and communicating with him via paper notes and hand gestures. Their old-man/young-boy friendship is awkward, for sure (definitely a Death in Venice vibe going on), but it’s also quite moving. This movie is about finding solace in the strangest places when confronted with the desperate sadness of death. It teaches us not to shrug away from the opportunity to let someone in – to let someone help.

Overall, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is completely satisfactory. There were some aspects to love and others to loathe – each effectively cancelling the other out. I do not regret seeing the movie, nor do I ask others to refrain. The message “never stop looking” which is played with throughout is both pure and good-intentioned. In fact, you just might shed a tear or two just for the heck of it. Admittedly, the only part of the movie that was genuinely poor is the protagonist. Oskar Schell is just too abrasive to love and too unpredictable to trust. But hey, that’s a depiction or real sorrow, isn’t it? Maybe it just made us uncomfortable because of how too real it truly was.

My rating: 5/10

*Disclaimer: I heretofore admit that Foer’s novel is my favorite novel of all time and is the sole catalyst for my calling dibs on reviewing this film. As an afterthought, this was a terrible idea and I am officially going to divorce myself, in this review, from the novel. To do a strict comparison of the two would be futile and result only in feeling extremely “heavy boots”, fury, tears and a whole lot of angry punch-dancing. It just can’t be done.

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About Alicia Kaiser

Alicia Kaiser

Alicia Kaiser: University student; Movie enthusiast; Nerd. She enjoys reading, writing, partaking in shenanigans and making sweet crafts. Currently, she is simultaneously employed by and a student at the University of Victoria. While she moseys towards her degree with Major in English Literature and a Minor in Professional Writing, she can be found in UVic Marketing doing cool, grown-up stuff. For Alicia, watching movies is comparable to (if not more important than), eating, sleeping and physical activity. Her reviews are full of passion, pizzazz, analysis, and introspection. Enjoy.

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