Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
One star for the Worst Scenes, five stars for the True Scenes.


18 February 2012

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Plot summary

One young boy’s journey from heartbreaking loss to the healing power of self-discovery, set against the backdrop of the tragic events of September 11.

In the small magical country that is the world of an 11-year-old, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) goes on a ‘reconnaissance mission,’ a game his father (Tom Hanks)—who perished in the conflagration of September 11th—devised to get Oskar to overcome his social anxieties.  Finding a key squirreled away in his father’s closet, marked simply ‘Black,’ he sets off on one last quest, overlaid by the longing of primal grief, to find some vestige of his father to provide closure to what he calls ‘The Worst Day.’  He plans to talk to everyone named Black in the New York City telephone directory.  There are 472 of them.  His journey takes him to all five boroughs where he encounters fecund mothers, schizophrenics, prayer meetings, shut-ins, and bipolar old people, discovering along the way that people are people, not grid numbers, that ‘the great thing about a key is always opens something,’ that ‘if things were easy to find, they’d wouldn’t be worth finding,’ and a whole lot of other fridge magnet proverbs.

Oskar’s quest has all the overheated chestnuts of a fairy tale—old keys, secret maps, magic talismans (in this case a tambourine, to keep him calm), and hermits with secrets.  It also takes place in an enchanted land, a New York City where a plucky 11-year-old can wander unmenaced into strange boroughs by himself and knock on strangers’ doors.  As director Stephen Daldry says, ‘The New York of this film is a child’s New York.’

Or, more correctly, a child’s fantasy of New York, and all the presumed innocence that entails.  For instance, would Abby Black (Viola Davis)—just one of Mrs. Blacks—actually let a stranger into her home?  I mean, in New York City?  I mean, at any time?  But especially when she’s in the middle of her own domestic firestorm, sobbing, as her husband walks out on her?  And then agree to have her picture taken, her face puffed with tears, as she’s collapsed on the stairway, just so that Oskar can remember her?  Even if it is to help a little boy?  I mean, in New York City? Remember Kitty Genovese, who, in 1964, was stalked and murdered in Queens while over thirty of neighbors watched and didn’t help?  Only in fairytale movie New York City would Oskar be able to trundle with impunity protected only by a tambourine.  And this, considering the events that drive the action, is decidedly no fairytale New York City.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel) is a movie of superlative craft, exquisitely shot, and with a brilliant sound design that darkens the fairy tale quest.  But there are two types of scenes in the film: True ones—with complex emotions plumbing the answerless depths of loss, featuring exceptional performances by Horn, Davis, Sandra Bullock (Oskar’s mother, Linda), Jeffrey Wright (Abby Black’s husband), and Max Von Sydow (as the mute hermit with secrets- unfortunately Hanks is already dead by the time the good stuff starts)—and the laborious, almost horrifically trite scenes (considering the subject matter, and their juxtaposition to the True Scenes); in the spirit of Oskar’s lexicon we’ll call those the Worst Scenes.  These are the ones with the kid-movie high jinks—like heads popping over hedges or grannies on walkie-talkies playing in the park—or the ones with overcultured pearls of wisdom (‘If you want to believe in something you can find it.’ – What?).  These philosophies just seem…written.  Or read off of a fridge magnet.  Not organic.  What are quirks in a novel can become affectations in a film.  Novels, good novels, do what novels do best—interiority, superb artistry with language.  Movies do what movies do best, visual exposition, the thousand-words-per-picture in a silent close-up.

When the film hits the True Scenes, where the dialogue is natural in it’s simplicity and fallibility, the movie becomes something unbearably moving and complex. The characters—and we can relate—struggle to accept their confusion, to find a way to share their mutual incomprehension, and try to make sense of something that defies that.  Thomas Horn (in his film debut—he’d previously been a Junior Champion on Jeopardy!), is an assured and astute performer and brings the entire film up with him in the scenes of raw emotion of  inconsolable grief.  His performance achieves an honestly and power that matches the superb quiet devastation of Sandra Bullock’s performance, and he holds his own, punching well above his weight, with Max Von Sydow.  The fairy-taleness of the quest subtracts from the character, placing Oskar firmly within the plague of increasingly brassy children in films, preternaturally wise children who sigh and roll their eyes in world-weariness and resignation at the slow witted adults, adults who just look down, bested by the acuity and verbal dexterity of the kids.  I mean, there’s an age limit for voting.  And, legally, you have to be 21 to drink in New York.  There should be a legal age limit on the use of irony.  Oskar has his mother and many people named Black clucking in awe, charms homeless derelicts into playing adventure games with the sincerity of children, and cruelly harangues the big loaf of a doorman (John Goodman), who is left trounced and abashed (what was John Goodman even doing in this film?  Community service?  He doesn’t do anything except get called a retard and look sheepish).  And then there’s the heartwarming old conceit of a youngster befriending a mean old man—Up, Hugo, Melvin and Howard, and many, many more—only to break through the crust, like on a freshly baked pie full of cheese and tender lamb.

On an inconceivable day in September, in 2001, two planes rent a hole in the New York skyline and the psyche of America.  It sent the world into shock; we needed a whole new category of emotion, of comprehension, one that we’re still trying to figure out a decade later.  The irrational fears of a child suddenly were the only ones that make sense, in a world where irrationality has taken over.  The personal tragedy of losing someone in the collapse was hard to process in the normal regimen of grief as the event took on international and historic proportions.  The ability to mourn the loss of a father was stymied in the weight of mourning a country’s—a world’s—innocence.  Oskar’s father was just a piece of the very public loss, something far larger than the life of one man.  But it was only one man that Oskar lost.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close becomes excellent in the honest scenes of unadorned tragedy: Oskar coming home from school and hearing the progressive panicked phone messages of his father as his fate becomes inevitable; Linda Schell on the phone with her husband as she watches the towers through a window and sees what he can’t; and Von Sydow’s hermit pleading for Oskar to stop playing the tapes by holding up his palm, with the word ‘no’ written on it; and particularly the mutually destructive grief of a mother and son exploding into words that can’t be taken back.

One star for the Worst Scenes, five stars for the True Scenes.