I always belabour the point of how difficult it is to get children right on film. This is because most filmmakers just don’t understand children. Luckily, 2011 was actually a great year for films featuring children, with Super 8, Attack the Block, Monsieur Lazhar and I Wish all showing just how effective a convincing child performance can be. It’d stand to reason then, that the one prominent film featuring a child protagonist that was nominated for Best Picture would be the best of the lot.
Sadly, this is not the case. The negative criticism is true. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a mess, and its infuriatingly precocious child protagonist is the main reason why.
Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, our child protagonist. He probably has Asperger’s syndrome, although the diagnosis is unconfirmed — but more on that later. His father, played in flashbacks by Tom Hanks, dies during 9/11. A year after his father’s death, Oskar is going through his father’s closet and discovers a key with the word Black posted on it.
Since Oskar is obsessive, he determines to find out what the key unlocks. He assumes Black is a name and heads off over all of the five bureaus of New York to find the secret to the key. Of course, he can’t take public transport and thus walks dozens of miles around the city every day. And he does this all by himself, obviously thinking it’s safe for a nine year old to wander New York alone. I don’t think he even goes to school.
This is the kind of logic Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close operates on. Oskar, and by extension, the filmmakers, assign a meaningless task with absurd importance. Apparently the grief caused by such a horrendous event as 9/11 can be overcome by something so preposterous and divorced from reality — and more than a little insulting to people still suffering from the terror of that day.
Oskar has business cards listing himself as an amateur pacifist, Francophile and inventor. He needs a tambourine to calm himself down. He is a math whiz (as all kids with Asperger’s are assumed to be) but is horribly awkward. He uses words like “Shitake mushrooms,” to curse. He wears old-fashioned dress shoes and takes pictures using his father’s old still camera. He always carries around his copy of A Brief History of Time.
This is the stuff of nauseatingly precious fantasy and not a film about 9/11.
Oskar doesn’t resemble a human child. Apserger’s syndrome does not turn individuals into a preposterously fictional assortment of the most peculiar quirks imaginable. Since Oskar is so obviously a fictional creation, his quest for catharsis ends up leaving you cold, despite the film’s best efforts to get your tear ducts working.
Oskar and his central quest are really the film’s only problems, but since they compose the majority of the movie, there’s little left to salvage it. The supporting cast is uniformly good. Max von Sydow, although never uttering a word, is sympathetic as a mute older man renting a room at Oskar’s grandmothers, but his performance is hardly Oscar-worthy. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Thomas’s father and mother are predictably good. Viola Davis and Jeffery Wright stand out in key cameo roles.
Everything in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is affectation. We should never accept this amount of precocious artifice in any movie, let alone a film about 9/11. An event as horrific as 9/11 deserves a more tempered story than Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close can give it, and more importantly, a greater fidelity to reality.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
Directed by Stephen Daldry; written by Eric Roth based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer; starring Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and John Goodman.
4 out of 10