As an admirer of Stephen Daldry’s films—and despite my misgivings about the material and, worse, the poster—I was keen on seeing his latest, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. That it was a disappointment was probably inevitable—something that I might have been better prepared for had I gone into it realizing that the screenplay was by Eric Roth, whose work I am not an admirer of. Had I known that from the onset, I would have been expecting Oskar Schell (Kid Jeopardy champ Thomas Horn) to be in the “magical misfit” mode of Forrest Gump (1994) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)—which is what I got. How much of that is from the source novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, I don’t know, but it all feels very Rothian.
That said, I’m not calling Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close bad. But it is shamelessly manipulative and incredibly—and unbelievably—contrived. It’s also the only Stephen Daldry film I’ve seen that I don’t expect to feel the need to revisit. I’m sure others will find the film intensely moving in its own right. I wish I could join them.
In case you don’t know, the film is about a boy, Oskar, whose father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11—an event Oskar understandably calls “the worst day.” Also not surprising is the fact that he becomes terrified of something else like it happening again. It’s also understandable that he has started fixating on his father, especially since his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), has become withdrawn in the aftermath. The hook for what follows, however, comes when Oskar accidentally breaks a vase from a closet shelf and discovers a key in an envelope marked, “Black.” Since his father was prone to devising searches for Oskar to undertake, the boy is convinced this is another one—and one that will lead to a message from his father.
When a locksmith suggests that Black is probably a name, Oskar determines to track down every person by that name in all the New York boroughs in the hopes of decoding his message. Two points immediately come to mind with this scenario. The first is the extreme improbability of a 9-year-old making his way on his own—at least till he teams up a character known as the Renter (Max von Sydow)—all over New York without trouble. This gets explained later, but the explanation is even harder to swallow. The second is that the end of a quest like this in any movie is going to have a lemon of an answer. This is no different, but it’s by no means the sourest such lemon I’ve encountered.
The overall tone of the piece isn’t hard to guess—especially given the screenwriter. Everyone with whom Oskar comes into contact will changed by the experience. It works on that basis, but it’s a cliched concept and it’s handled with an equal abundance of cliches—however well made it is, and it is well made. But there is one major exception in the Max von Sydow character—and von Sydow’s performance. Giving the Renter a traumatic experience—having lived through the firebombing of Dresden in WWII, which has driven him not to speak—as a parallel to Oskar’s mental state is a little on the convenient side, but it’s easily the most effective thing in the film.
For everything that the film doesn’t do right—or overdoes—it cannot be accused of being poorly or indifferently acted. Aside from von Sydow, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are excellent. For that matter, even though I don’t entirely believe their characters, I can’t fault Tom Hanks’ or Sandra Bullock’s performances, given the material. Newcomer Thomas Horn’s performance works, but how much of that is acting and how much is owed to the fact that the character requires a certain mannered awkwardness is another matter. Whatever the case, the actors are better than the material. Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language.