Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

Stephen Daldry
Eric Roth (screenplay), Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)

While originally planned to be released in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant Sophomore novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not arrive too late to miss out on this year’s tidal wave of Oscar hopefuls.

EL&IC, while simultaneously touching and heart wrenching, is the story of 9-year-old oddity Oskar Schell and his search for the meaning of his now deceased father’s last encrypted message.  Tom Hanks plays Oskar’s Father Thomas, whose didactic nature and keenly German attention to detail lead him to develop a series of scavenger hunts and puzzles intended to help his socially handicapped son break out of his intensely introverted shell (Foer’s selection of the descriptive homophone Schell for his hero’s last name is most definitely not an accident). Oskar, searching desperately for some way to stay connected with his father after he is tragically killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, stumbles upon a key to some unknown door/lock-box in his father’s untouched closet. With his only clue being the name “Black” written on the envelope in which the key was encased, Oskar becomes obsessed with the idea that his father meant for him to find this key, and solve this one last riddle. His odyssey takes him across all 5 boroughs of New York and to the homes of more than 200 residents with the last name Black.

Curiously enough, a British director, Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours) takes the helm on this film, and faces the rather perilous situation of the still touchy topic of September 11th  with American audiences. Foer’s book, published just four years after the horrific event was criticized by some because it “Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train” (Huffington Post Review) and because Foer simply used the subject of 9/11 in order “to make things important, to get paid”(New York Press Review). While I personally felt that Foer dealt with the subject appropriately only really using it as a kind of periphery setting within which a number of compelling characters play out their own personal dramas, Daldry’s film seems to go the opposite direction and cross quite dramatically that line on which Foer so delicately tip-toed. Daldry goes as far as opening the film with images of an unidentified jumper falling through the sky after the attacks, this choice contrasts sharply with Foer’s opening which is one of the best characterizing monologues you will ever read.

In the hands of Daldry, EL&IC uses the events of 9/11 as a kind of emotional crutch. The specter of the collapsing buildings and all those that perished within is never allowed to be far from audience’s mind, and in fact, most of the films truly engaging moments are produced by pulling on the audiences’ already tightly drawn heartstrings around the event. New York Magazine critic David Edelstein entitled his review of the film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Manipulative,” and I would have to agree with his assessment. It felt as though Daldry lets the event itself do most of the emotional heavy lifting for the film, leaving the underdeveloped characters and somewhat contrived plot to pick up what little they can carry after the fact.

Set next to some of the most accomplished and veteran actors of their respective generations (Sydow, Hanks, Bullock, Goodman, Wright), is Hollywood newcomer Thomas Horn playing the part of Oskar. Discovered by producer Scott Rudin on an episode of “Kids Jeopardy!”, Horn’s precocious awkwardness and Rainman-like retention of information made him as close to a real-life Oskar Schell as they were likely to find. With a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, the film is held almost completely on his inexperienced shoulders, as he appears in nearly every scene and provides the number-obsessed narration through which we try to understand Oskar’s eccentric view of the world.  While Horn does give what appears by all measures to be a very organic performance considering his novice status, his portrayal, I feel, lost most of what made the character so sympathetic in the book. Not only is Horn a bit too old for the role (14 at the time of filming whereas Oskar is supposed to be 9), but something in his demeanor suggests an arrogant child with a penchant for numbers rather than the inquisitive, at times abrasive, yet charmingly, painfully honest child with an autistic-like alternate view on the world.

Oskar’s sole companion on his quest is the mysterious “Renter,” played by Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, What Dreams May Come, Snow Falling On Cedars, etc. etc., etc.). In an interesting twist, Sydow, who speaks 4 languages in real life (English, French, Swedish, and Italian) is rendered speechless in the film and can only communicate with Oskar via hastily scribbled notes and sign language (literally “yes” and “No” written on either palm). While his silence, we are force-fed to understand, is the direct result of some horrific past events, we only receive the barest of details about this history. Yet it is not all that necessary as the deep bags under his eyes relate a sadness that no amount of speaking could ever begin to approximate/relate, making Sydow perfect for this role. If nothing else, he deserves the Oscar not for the performance itself, but for the lifetime of preparation he did for the roll, which is featured (pun intended) in the manifold nooks, crannies, notches, folds, and mounds that compose his endlessly interesting face.

On the subject of The Renter’s silence, one particularly glaring change that occurred from page to screen comes to mind. In the book, the Renter’s silence is due to the slow character breakdown that occurred after the true love of his life (Oskar’s Grandmother’s elder sister Anna) died in the Dresden bombings. In the film, this detail is completely changed to him having watched his mother and father die in front of his very eyes, thus paralleling Oskar’s own emotional trauma (hearing his father on the phone/seeing the building collapse) and Oskar’s potential reactions to that trauma (shutting himself off from the world vs. embracing it). Now, while I understand that to go into this whole character history may have been somewhat time consuming and potentially confusing to the audience, this choice gets to the very heart of what is wrong with the film.  The incredibly interesting, dynamic, unique relationship created by Foer in the book between Grandmother and the renter is completely disregarded in favor of a heavy-handed thematic relation to the trauma of 9/11 in the movie. Daldry has replaced the three or four intimately rendered faces of the book  (even Mother’s character is not given her full development as the subplot of her beginning to date again was wholly cut from the film) for the wall of faces missing after the attack. While these faces are undoubtedly important, they have already been seared into memory for the rest of our lives.

Hanks, Bullock, and Wright all put in respectable efforts in their relatively minor roles, but I must say that I felt the casting of John Goodman was a complete waste. The addition of this normally wonderful actor seems to have been motivated by marketing impulses alone; add another big name to the cast of characters pull in an even bigger audience/revenue. The relationship between Oskar and Stan the doorman, which is so quirky and tongue-and-cheek in the book, comes off almost mean-spirited, if not a bit inappropriate in the film. For a much more fitting and skillful use of Goodman’s natural expansiveness (as opposed to the diminutive character he plays in this film), go see The Artist.

While this entire review may come across a bit negative in general (and I don’t deny that that would be an appropriate reading of it), the film still has some very redeemable qualities and deserves to be seen at least once. The score, masterfully written by Alexandre Desplat, reminds on of some of Philip Glass’ best work, and provides a very fertile ground for the vicarious experiences of Oskar’s inner world. The cinematography (Chris Menges) also contributes quite well to the anxiety and the beauty that compose Oskar’s daily existence. I would not in any way say that this film is deserving of the best picture nomination it now holds, but with the 10-year anniversary of probably the most traumatic event in American history come and gone, The Academy probably felt the event (and thus the film) was too significant to be to be ignored.

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