Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close represents the best type of sentimentalism there is, in which the aim is not to make you cry but to actually tell a story that will resonate emotionally. It’s not a fairy tale, a fable, or a parable; it’s simply a film that works more on the heart than it does the brain. I don’t always appreciate narrative contrivances, but in this case, I have to admire Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth – and, of course, Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the novel on which the film is based – for their willingness to be so bold and uncompromising in their vision. They certainly deserve credit for respectfully incorporating the events of September 11, 2001 into the story. It was an awfully big risk for them to take, and they pulled it off. That’s because 9/11 isn’t the main focus. It’s merely the backdrop.
The film freely goes back and forth through time, telling the story of a ten-year-old boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who doubles as the narrator. He mentions at one point that he was tested for Asperger’s syndrome, although the results were inconclusive. Whatever condition he does or does not have, it’s obvious his mind is wired differently. He’s a catalogue of obscure facts and figures that are narrowly focused. He’s highly neurotic, his list of phobias ranging from tall buildings to bridges to loud noises to things made of concrete. He has a hard time approaching strangers and speaking to them directly. He mentally counts his own lies. The only person he could communicate with was his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who aspired to be a scientist but ended up becoming a jeweler. He turned every situation into an archeological and historical exploration. Well aware of Oskar’s difficulties, he would stipulate that things were not worth doing if they were easy.
After Thomas’ death on 9/11 (he was in one of the towers of the World Trade Center), Oskar is thrown for a loop. His is a world of logic, organization, and structure, and yet nothing about his father’s death makes sense – not even his funeral, in which an empty coffin was buried in a cemetery. He almost never refers to the day by its date; mostly, he calls it The Awful Day, which is as good a name for it as any. He’s left with his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), and although she’s a loving woman, the two simply can’t communicate. The situation is made harder because, naturally, she too is grieving Thomas’ loss. Even after a year, things just aren’t coming together. How can he come to terms with this? Perhaps the answer lies in his father’s closet, which has been left untouched and which Oskar hasn’t entered since The Awful Day. He accidentally knocks over a vase, in which contains a tiny manila envelope with the word “black” written on it. Within the envelope is a key.
Obviously, the key fits into a lock. But which lock? And what does “black” mean? Oskar correctly assumes that it’s actually a person’s family name. With the help of his apartment building’s security guard (John Goodman), with whom he trades foul-mouthed insults, Oskar is given access to several New York City phone books. He systematically determines that there are over 400 people in the area with the name Black. He then calculates the time it will take him to meet them all, factoring in his walking speed, the hours he searches on any given day, and the average time it will take to talk to them (around two minutes or so). Once he begins his journey, using a tambourine as a way to keep him calm, he quickly realizes that no one is on the same schedule he’s on. Many want to tell him their life story. Others simply don’t care. In any case, he takes a picture as a record of the meeting.
Most of the people he meets are not examined in depth, which is fair enough given the amount of time it would take. There are, however, two notable exceptions. One is a man whose name isn’t even Black. In fact, his name isn’t given at all. He’s a reclusive, mysterious old man from Germany (Max von Sydow), who rents an apartment from Oskar’s grandmother, also a German immigrant (Zoe Caldwell). The old man, known only as The Renter, has been so psychologically scarred that he can no longer speak. He writes longer sentences in a notebook; for simple answers, he lifts his hands, one palm tattooed with the word “yes” and the other with “no.” He joins Oskar in an effort to help him, despite the boy’s rigid rules. The other person is Abby Black (Viola Davis). I will refrain from describing their first meeting, for I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot. I will say that, like much of the movie, the circumstances aren’t very likely.
But then again, that’s not the way melodrama works. The intention is to provoke an emotional reaction, not to have you analyze the logistics of a situation. And provoke a reaction it did; by the end of the film, I was clutching a tear-stained tissue. I allowed myself to be so vulnerable because it was obvious that a story was being told. Had Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close been just a strung-together series of dramatic situations, had there been no context, it would only be manipulation. Having said this, I anticipate a divisive reaction, with some audiences finding it incredibly touching and others finding it unbearably cloying. Some may even think it’s in poor taste. A negative reaction is understandable, although I hope you see your way to giving the film a chance. Although it works entirely in sentiment, its plot is engaging and the characters are compelling.
** out of **** For me, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is about as difficult to hate as it is to like or even love. The reviews seem quite divided over Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, with some calling it manipulative melodrama and others considering it effective and very moving. The Academy surely saw something special in the picture, as exemplified by their decision to nominate it for Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards; although then … more
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE Written by Eric Roth Directed by Stephen Daldry Starring Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow and Tom Hanks Making movies about the September 11 tragedies is unquestionably tricky. You don’t want to gloss over the facts and you definitely don’t want to exploit the pain but you also have to ensure that your movie is not so bleak and depressing that no one ends up seeing it. EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, the latest film by Oscar … more
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) shares an incredibly close relationship with his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks). Oskar is an extraordinary child who has some very particular social quirks. His list is rather extensive and it's revealed that he was once tested for Asperger's Syndrome. However, Thomas Schell spends a great amount of time with his son and does everything he can to help him overcome his fears. However, on September 11, 2001 as the world changes forever, tragically so does the … more
By Joan Alperin Schwartz 9/11...All you have to do is say that date and most people will have a reaction...usually an emotional reaction...And for me, that emotion is one of saddness...for the senseless loss that so many people experienced. And now, ten years after that infamous day, Stephen Daltry has directed a beautiful, moving film about...loss. 'Extremely … more
Saw this on my afternoon flight from Hong Kong to Singapore just last Thursday. I had often wondered how children who lost their parents during the Sep. 11 attack would react and cope with life after learning about their parents' demise. Unbeknownst to me at the time of watching, I had to deal with the unexpected death of a childhood friend that very night. The shock and subsequent reactions to the news is not something one who hasn't experienced will know what it's like. I'm … more
Truly a lovely movie. Thomas Horn, the child who is in pretty much every scene, is a wonder, especially given the fact that he has never acted before. His face fills the screen for so much of the story, and he does an amazing job with the range of emotions he had to play. I was VERY happy to discover that the film was not made to me manipulatively weepy, as so many can be. I was also happy to see that there was almost no footage of 9/11 in the movie. The director uses the actors to express the gravitas, … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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