Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been notably reviled by State-side critics since it premièred on Christmas Day last year. It is not that the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative – it’s even up for the Best Film Oscar – it’s just that the people who have disliked Extremely Loud… have REALLY disliked it. “Wrong on every level” ran a typical reaction. “Extremely, incredibly exploitative” spat another. Being the kind of sport who reckons any film which provokes a genuinely emotional reaction, positive or negative, is worth at least a quick glance I approached Stephen Daldry’s (The Hours, Billy Elliot) latest with a cautious curiosity.
Extremely Loud…tells the story of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) an intelligent but awkward young boy whose father Thomas Schell (Hanks) died in the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. Through memories we discover that Thomas used to set tasks for his boy which would send him all over Manhattan searching for clues to abstract mysteries of his own devising. Oskar, who may be suffering from Asperger syndrome, finds it almost impossible to connect with anyone but his father. After the Trade Centre falls Oskar finds himself at odds with everyone, in particular his grief stricken mother Linda (Bullock). One day, however, while digging about in his father’s closet, Oskar finds a small envelope marked with the name “Black”, which contains a small safe deposit box key.
Vowing to find out where the key fits, Oskar looks up the addresses of every person named Black in New York City (there are 417) and decides to visit each of them to find out if they had any connection to his father. While this is going on, a strange old man known only as The Renter (Von Sydow) moves into Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. Though completely mute, something about The Renter seems to draw him and Oskar together in Oskar’s quest to keep his dad’s memory alive.
Mainstream American cinema gets a pretty hard time from some sections of the movie press. In these grim corners of film journalism subtitles are a mark of excellence, the word “movie” is a blasphemy and the term “American Cinema” is accepted slang for formulaic nonsense. Though the last two years of corking, adventurous US releases (Drive, Black Swan, True Grit, The Descendants, etc.) have done plenty to disprove this theory, occasionally something comes along so undeniably, foolishly, misguidedly American that it gives credence to that snobbish prejudice. Rubbish films can be made anywhere but Extremely Loud…’s particular brand of emptily mawkish, self important nonsense could only have originated in the You Ess of A, Brit director or otherwise.
There is something that happens to big budget American productions when they take on large scale events that caused widespread bad juju. Whether it be the second world war, the financial crisis or 9/11, no matter how deep the ensuing film digs into the trough of misery, the final conclusion must always be that these events were testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Could there once, just once, be a mainstream American film which dealt with a true tragic event that concluded that it was, in fact, a testament to human failure and folly?
Extremely Loud… reaches, from its very first moment, for a level of self-importance which its weak collection of paper thin supporting characters, clunkily mishandled dialogue and absurdly contrived plot-line never earn. Most unfortunate of all, however, is that it is anchored by a supremely irritating central character. It is customary in criticism to go easy on child actors, no matter how objectionable or unconvincing the performance they turn in. In keeping with that tradition, we can dump all the blame for how deeply dislikeable, utterly misjudged and tambourine-rattlingly irksome little Oskar is on the screenwriter Eric Roth (the man who scripted Forrest Gump) and Steven Daldry.
It concludes with predictable, cloying triumphalism. If you had actually invested some emotion into Oskar’s search for closure I suppose it is understandable that you might leave the cinema feeling unfairly manipulated by such a trite conclusion. I didn’t. Having felt nothing in the preceding 130 minutes other than a slightly irritated boredom I left with little more than fatigue. Judging by the amount of snoring coming from other members of my matinee audience I don’t think I was the only one.
And that, finally, is Extremely Loud…’s greatest crime. Using 9/11 as a fig leaf of importance to cover its formulaic inanity, it just isn’t a very interesting film.