Understand my reasons for allotting 2011’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” the final score I did. I’d give it a 10/10 for having its heart in the right place; a 6/10 for stretching that heart almost to the breaking point with its gushy sentimentality; a 3/10 for checking reason and logic at the door; and a 1/10 for exploiting the 9/11 tragedy for purely fictional, commercial, melodramatic purposes.
Marking the tenth anniversary of the horrendous September 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, Hollywood seemed bound to weigh in with at least one more major motion picture on the subject. This one appeared at first glance to have a lot going for it: Two huge stars in Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock; a slew of important actors in Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright; a newcomer in Thomas Horn; a screenplay by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “Ali,” “The Insider,” “Munich,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer; and director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Eliott,” “The Hours,” “The Reader”). Still, 9/11 may have been a subject rehashed too many times already for any movie to say something new or meaningful about it, even in so earnest a manner as in this film. As a result, the film is a disappointment.
The story is easy enough to follow, even with its convoluted premise, and it works well enough if you don’t think much about it. Unfortunately, the filmmakers want viewers to take the movie quite seriously, so they almost force one to examine the drama minutely, and the story doesn’t hold up.
The main character is a young boy of indeterminate age (the novel says he’s nine but the actor playing the part is about twelve or thirteen) named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn). He lives in New York City with his parents, played by Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. They are portrayed as ideal parents, “Father Knows Best” parents. I mean, what kid wouldn’t want Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as his parents? Anyway, the father, a jeweler, plays a game with his son whenever he can, a guessing game called “Reconnaissance Expedition” where the father places clues around the city for the boy to find and figure out. It not only helps the boy and his father to bond, it helps with the boy’s psychological problems. You see, he appears to be autistic; he’s brilliant but has emotional issues, leaving him rigid, uncommunicative, scared, and detached. He describes himself as “odd.”
During the 9/11 attacks, Oskar’s father is at a meeting on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center and dies in the catastrophe. Oskar is understandably devastated. Then, a year after the father’s death, Oskar finds a key in a vase tucked away on the top of his father’s closet, the key inside an envelope marked “Black.” Oskar figures it was a final game his father left him to decipher, and he decides to solve it or else. He thinks it’s a “special key” and wants to find out what it unlocks. Of course, we recognize immediately that it’s not just a real key but a metaphorical key as well, a key to keeping his father with him a little longer, a key to Oskar’s finding himself, a key to unlocking the beauty and mystery of the world. Or some such high-sounding themes. Oskar keeps a journal of his new, perhaps final, “Reconnaissance Expedition,” titling it “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and determining “never to stop looking, ever.”
Oskar resolves to visit every person named “Black” in the city, over four hundred of them, and question them about the key. During his expeditions each weekend, he encounters an assortment of New Yorkers, his relentless search and the people he meets making up the plot and action of the movie.
Now, here’s the thing: Oskar is in almost every scene, and you’ll probably either like Thomas Horn’s acting (the Broadcast Film Critics Association gave him their Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Young Actor/Actress for the role) or find his character annoying. The filmmakers chose a first-time actor in Thomas Horn, discovering him on a “Jeopardy” game show. The movie intends for the boy’s character to be unusual, but after a while, his cold, unresponsive, often insulting personality becomes irritating, even grating.
And it doesn’t help that in order apparently to provide the story more gravitas, the film moves at the pace of a Greenland glacier.
Flashbacks to the day of 9/11 fill in the details of the events and how they immediately affected Oskar and his family. The characters Oskar (and we) meet through his quest include his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), who lives across the street from the boy and with whom Oskar feels most comfortable. There’s a reclusive old man (Max von Sydow) known only as “The Renter” who lets a room from the grandmother and who agrees to help Oskar with his search, perhaps to help him face his fears. The Renter doesn’t want to or cannot speak, writing out his responses on paper. I’m sure there must be some profound symbolism at work here, but it escapes me. There is Stan the doorman (John Goodman), whom Oskar treats with continuous and inexplicable contempt. There are Abby (Viola Davis) and William (Jeffrey Wright) Black, a newly divorced couple; and many others. Each has his or her own sad story to tell.
By the time the movie ends, which it never appears to want to do, incidentally, it seems more than a little improbable. When it was finally over, I found myself not just disappointed, but a little annoyed. It was like, what? That makes no sense. What are the odds any of that could happen? Indeed, little in the film makes any logical sense once the story unfolds and presents its revelations. Frankly, by the time it does conclude, it seems more than a little like a cheat.
The filmmakers chose to shoot the movie digitally with an Arri Alexa digital camera, and even though I have never been a fan of digital shooting, I must admit this is the best digitally shot film I’ve yet seen. What’s more, the Warner engineers did a good job transferring it to Blu-ray using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec.
The colors are vivid, with facial tones as natural looking as one could want. The overall image is a touch glassy yet displays excellent definition and detailing. It only real drawback is that it can appear too good, too well defined, too icy cold in its preciseness and clarity to seem entirely real; and it looks a tad flat rather than dimensional. Still, it is, as I say, quite beautiful, the equal of most movies shot on conventional film stock.
The movie is primarily dialogue driven, so there isn’t always a lot for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound reproduction to do beyond render a clean, clear, lifelike midrange. It handles the situation with ease, along with providing a wide stereo spread, strong bass, good musical ambient effects, and a few environment noises in the surrounds like those from trains and crowds.
The Blu-ray disc in this two-disc Combo Pack contains four bonus featurettes. The first is “Making Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” about twenty minutes with the filmmakers and the stars. The second is “Finding Oskar,” eight minutes on the young actor the filmmakers found to play the lead character. The third is “Ten Years Later,” eleven minutes with New Yorkers and their stories a decade after the attacks. And the fourth featurette is “Max von Sydow: Dialogues with the Renter,” forty-four minutes with the actor on location.
The extras on disc one conclude with fourteen scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; Spanish and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, a DVD, contains a standard-definition version of the movie. In addition, the Combo Pack includes an UltraViolet Digital Copy, which “allows you to stream via Wi-Fi and download to your computer and compatible iPhone touch and iPad devices.” The redemption code expires March 27, 2014. The two discs come packaged in a flimsy Eco-case, the case further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover.
The 9/11 attacks affected thousands of lives: the victims, the families, the friends, the nation, and the world. Replaying one improbable fictional story doesn’t do a lot to clarify, amplify, or penetrate the nature of the catastrophe. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” seems more than anything else like an excuse to capitalize on the event in order to tug at our heartstrings. The filmmakers clearly want us to sympathize with the movie’s young protagonist, but giving him such burdensome psychological problems that his demeanor becomes annoying only serves to distance him and the story from us further.
If you’re looking for stories about a brilliant but odd little boy, a loving father, a series of cosmic connections, and even more tear-jerking sentimentality, you might try television’s “Touch” with Kiefer Sutherland. And the best part is, it’s free.