Thursday, March 29, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max Von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell
Running Time: 129 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Sometimes you hear so much about a movie it's difficult to approach it with a clean slate. In the case of Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it's practically impossible. Considered by many as one of the weakest Best Picture nominees in years, just the announcement of its shocking inclusion last February elicited a chorus of gasps and groans. Whether its dissenters even actually saw the film or not, you'd have to figure much of that had to do with its 9/11 subject matter. And that's exactly what this comes down to since the picture isn't nearly awful enough on its own terms to provoke such a passionate response. And it certainly isn't controversial. Did it deserve to be nominated for Best Picture? Of course not. There are some problems with it and it's emotionally manipulative to a point. But at the end of the day it's a mildly successful examination of how an eccentric, intelligent young boy with an emotional spectrum disorder deals with death. Featuring some really strong performances and a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, that's all there is to it. A mixed bag, but 2 hours mostly well spent.

Based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, it tells the story of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), son of jeweler Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, a date Oskar frequently refers to as "the worst day." Through flashbacks we see the special bond between the two up until his father's death with Thomas often sending Oskar on wild scavenger hunts to find hidden objects throughout New York City. Following 9/11 Oskar emotionally withdraws from his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) with any discussion of that day ending in a shouting match. After working up the courage to explore his father's untouched closet 8 months later, he discovers a small envelope marked "Black" with a mysterious key inside. Assuming his dad left it there for him to find, Oskar looks up everyone with that last name in the the phone book sets out on one last expedition to find the lock it fits. His sole companion on the trip is the The Renter (Max Von Sydow), a mute old man living with his grandmother whom he befriends. With maps in hand and routes planned out, the quest is as much Oskar's way to extend time with his deceased father and make sense of what happened as it is to find the lock. He won't stop until he solves the mystery, but in doing so he may be forced to come to the realization his father's actually gone.

This is a strange film and for all the criticisms leveled against it at least it presents a type of protagonist we've never seen before but whose patterns of behavior will be immediately recognizable to some. During Oskar's voiceover narration in the first hour he states he was tested for Asperger's but the results came back inconclusive. Maybe in an effort to drum up some ambiguity for the character or fear that officially diagnosing him would create a pity party, Academy Award winning screenwriter Eric Roth lets the viewers speculate as to whether something's wrong with him. Well, there clearly is. He's either a really high functioning autistic or suffers from Asperger's. It's more likely the latter and I kind of wish they had just come out and said that as it would have quelled many of the complaints against the film and Horn's performance, which is remarkable if you're able to separate the actor from the character. Oskar's supposed to be annoying, over-emotional and overbearing, so Horn, a child Jeopardy winner with no previous acting experience, often narrates the story as if he were rattling off  facts on that game show. It becomes uncomfortable when he gives extremely detailed descriptions of of every tiny aspect of the "worst day" but it's supposed to be and it's in line with the character. As for the 9/11 scenes themselves all I can say is that they feel terrifying rather than offensive or emotionally manipulative. Nothing seems to come off as disrespectful, even though that doesn't even address the real issue here. Despite a handful of films having already been released handling the topic, the question of whether it's "too soon" will keep coming up and while it's up to each individual viewer to decide that for themselves, those against the idea would still be against it regardless of how this was presented.

The first hour of the film literally lives up to its title as we probably spend about as much one on one time with this kid that is bearable, but luckily the flashbacks with his father work and Tom Hanks is his usual likable self. Bullock, in her first post-Blind Side role, is affecting too, with nearly all the uncomfortable 9/11 scenes falling squarely on her lap. It isn't necessarily a large part, but it's challenging and she delivers a nice, low key performance. Her character won't be winning any "Mother of the Year" awards as the film's biggest flaw is how she'd let a 11-year-old just wander the streets of New York. There's an attempt at an explanation for this later but it's a weak one that does little to erase a huge gap in logic that could have easily been fixed by having him just run away instead.

The arrival of Max Von Sydow's mute unnamed renter into the story may as well mark the start of the film as that's when the narrative starts gaining real momentum. From the minute he appears the 82-year-old's Oscar-nominated supporting turn provides the young actor with someone interesting and more experienced to bounce off of during the journey.What's more impressive than Von Sydow giving an entirely silent performance is that it's so expressive that words would have probably been a distraction. He gets his point across so clearly he doesn't even need them and any scene in the film without him seems weaker because of it. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright give small but crucial performances as two strangers Oskar meets on his adventure and elevate their material considerably, especially Wright who figures in huge in the third act. And for a movie centering around a mystery that really isn't "about" the mystery, its payoff is surprisingly satisfying. 

Having carried the similarly controversial Holocaust drama The Reader to a detested Best Picture nomination in 2008, director Stephen Daldry has proven he isn't afraid to tackle tumultuous subject matter through a sentimental lens. He goes all out here, but respectfully and with a consistent tone, resulting once again in a mild success. So far there have actually been quite a few movies that in some form or another revolve around the 9/11 tragedy. United 93 and World Trade Center were dramatic interpretations of the actual event with the former employing a docudrama approach that gave the material a frightening sense of immediacy. 25th Hour and Reign Over Me touched on the aftermath, with the latter controversially using it as a plot device. What all these movies have in common is that no one was particularly comfortable with that day or its aftermath being depicted at all, regardless of their quality. In many ways this is the 9/11 film everyone's been dreading and hoped Hollywood wouldn't make because it involves a child coping with the tragedy. But its tough to argue that's not the most honest entry point. Neither exploitive or inspirational, it's a slightly above average, well acted drama that got too much attention for reasons unrelated to what's onscreen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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 Jeremy.