I haven’t seen every film ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, but I’m sure Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has to be one of the worst to be given such high recognition. It isn’t exactly hard to work out why it received Oscar nods. The drama is stimulated by the sense of loss and confusion caused by 9/11, and it features a flawed hero trying to achieve a task against the odds and in doing so reach some kind of destiny or understanding. It’s syrupy sentimental nonsense and I found it tremendously tiresome.
Adapted from Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel by Forest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, the plot centres around a nine-year-old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) trying to come to terms with the death of his dad (Tom Hanks). He died during the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001. Although he cannot know for sure, Oskar believes his father was one of the people witnessed apparently jumping from the burning building.
When searching through his father’s things he finds an old vase with a key inside it. A single word is written on the envelope that holds the key: ‘Black’. So Oskar goes through phone books and decides to talk to everyone listed under that surname that lives in New York City. He asks them if they know what the key opens. Along the way, he teams up with a silent old man (Max Von Sydow) who is allegedly renting a room in his grandmother’s apartment. Oskar’s grandfather disappeared before he was born, so no points for guessing who this renter actually is.
Throughout the film, Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) desperately tries to connect with her son. We see, in flashbacks, him playing with his dad and talking animatedly about history and trivia. With his mum, however, there doesn’t seem to be such spark and sense of fun. She tries to show him love and affection but he is awkward, rude and wilfully cruel to her.
The way Oskar treats his mother is horrible to witness. In one scene, possibly the best one in the film, he tells her he wished she was the one who had died in the building that day rather than his dad. It’s a devastating moment, beautifully acted by both Horn and Bullock. It has a sense of real, painful grittiness about it; a quality the rest of the film is thoroughly devoid of.
It isn’t made clear why the main character dislikes his mum so much, nor is it apparent what is wrong with him. I use the word ‘wrong’ tentatively, as Oskar is clearly an intelligent child with the power to love and care about those around him. But he is an obsessive, has to calm himself down in public places by rattling a tambourine, and is frequently very rude to people for no apparent reason. He hurls discriminatory language towards the nice doorman at his apartment (John Goodman) and is insensitive to the elderly ways of his grandmother’s lodger. At one point, while talking to one of the many people with the surname Black (Viola Davis) he mentions he had been tested for Asperger’s Syndrome in the past but the results were inconclusive.
The character of Oskar is well played by young first-time actor Thomas Horn, but he is a very annoying protagonist, and for a film that is over two hours (but feels much longer) this is a bit of an issue.
The crass sentimentalising of the 9/11 attacks is also hard to stomach. The film clearly means well, but the tone comes across as infantile and naive. There are moments when it seems as if darker territory will be explored, such as when Oskar starts to self-harm, but nothing ever really comes of this. The narrative categorically refuses, as other critics have also noted, to discuss the greater effects of the events of September 2001 or why they might have happened. This may be an attempt to keep the drama in a more domestic setting, but for a film that is supposed to be about a boy discovering the wider world and the people in it while on a sprawling quest, you’d think such details might have cropped up somewhere during his adventures.
The mawkish feel to the film reminded me of the worst moments in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (also a Eric Roth-scripted feature). It sometimes feels as if we’re being treated like idiots and need to be told that the world is an unsettling place full of bad things and good things, light and dark, love and hate, hope and despair, loss and discovery. It’s all told in such a ridiculously wide-eyed, simplistic way I found it impossible to buy into the wafer-thin plot or the unbelievable characters. I expected more from director Stephen Daldry, who brought us such intuitive and multi-layered efforts as Billy Elliot and The Hours.
The film isn’t completely devoid of merit. It’s nicely photographed, well edited, and features a gorgeous score by Alexandre Desplat. The performances are also good. Sadly, this isn’t enough to save the picture from being a sickly puddled of silly nonsense.
Although it draws on a real event, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a fantasy that is impossible to penetrate. I could not believe in what I was being shown. The characters are, for the most part, props rather than people. The situations they are put in are contrived and unconvincing. As I said in my review of War Horse, sweet sentimental dramas are not always bad. But it is films like this that give that genre, if one can call it a genre, a bad name. Avoid Extremely Loud if you don’t want your intelligence insulted.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), directed by Stephen Daldry, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures, Certificate 12A.