December 25, 2011

THE BIJOU REVIEW: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”


If EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE accomplishes nothing else–and it actually accomplishes quite a bit–it’s served to let us know exactly where the third rail of current American popular culture is located.  It’s not every day that the august NY Times informs its readers that their correct response to a drama should be “rage,” but that’s the vitriolic conclusion of Manohla Dargis’s review (this same week she had no such trouble with the sex-plus-Bosnian-war-atrocities parade of In the Land of Blood and Honey).  This is where we are:  it is now socially acceptable to tell fictional stories amid the background of the Holocaust, Bosnia, Vietnam, Pearl Harbor, any number of other wars (if you go back to World War I and really lay on the suds like War Horse, Dargis’s colleague A. O Scott will praise your “bravery”), racial bigotry, religious conflict–but the one subject that can’t be touched is 9/11.  Is it that 10 years isn’t enough distance?  The fact that this particular terrible event took place in New York, the nexus of US cultural standard-making?  Others can speculate.  For the purposes of Extremely Loud, however, it means that a lovely, small-scale drama that happens to use 9/11 as its point of inception has become more divisive critically (57% among Rotten Tomatoes “Top Critics”) than Shame and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo combined.

Hysterical overreaction aside, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based by screenwriter Eric Roth on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, is simply a story about a troubled boy named Oskar (played in the film by Thomas Horn) attempting to cope with an awful loss, the death of his beloved father Thomas (Tom Hanks).  That death happened to occur at the Twin Towers on what Oskar calls “the worst day.”  Oskar is enormously bright and creative but also obsessive and neurotic by nature–there is the suggestion that he may have Aspergers–and beyond the grief one would expect and the way it affects his relationship with his mother (Sandra Bullock), he’s also nursing his own secret about that day that we don’t find out until late in the story.  
Oskar’s dad adapted to the boy’s tendencies by designing games for the two of them that were detail-oriented treasure hunts, where Oskar’s devotion to fanatical organization and tracking down every angle of a potential clue helped him to solve some invented mystery.  After Thomas’s death, Oskar becomes obsessed with the imagery and events of what happened in the Trade Center, and then he seizes on something in his father’s belongings–an unexplained key labeled “Black”–and in his desire to establish one last connection with his dad, he decides that this is a final puzzle that’s been left for him:  he has to track down the person named Black and find out what this key opens.  As he traipses all over the New York area, he has the help of his grandmother’s mysterious tenant “The Renter” (Max Von Sydow) who can’t or won’t speak, and communicates by means of notes and the words “Yes” and “No” imprinted on the palms of his hands.  As the story develops, we find out The Renter’s behavior is part of his own idiosyncratic reaction to great loss.
We in the audience understand early on that Oskar is on a search that can’t supply the answer he really seeks, but Extremely Loud is more than anything else a study of grief in its various and very personal forms:  Oskar’s, his mother’s, The Renter’s, and all the people he meets on his journeys.  In that sense, the fact that this particular death occurred on 9/11 isn’t exploitative, or “kitsch”:  it ties into the entire city’s sense of grief, and Oskar, although concentrating on his own quest, is able by it to make a connection with all the people he meets (and they, even if he’s not aware of it, are making connections to him); in this way they can begin to heal.
Not a terribly disturbing or offensive notion, is it?  One can certainly criticize Extremely Loud‘s central concept as precious, or find Oskar’s mannerisms annoying, or consider the multiple endings too heavy-handed.  Those are a matter of taste.  But to blast the movie as socially unacceptable for its very existence feels like a statement more about the critic than the work of art.
In this case, despite those arguable flaws, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an exquisite piece of filmmaking.  Director Stephen Daldry, dealing with material that requires enormous dexterity of tone, handles the whimsy and sadness beautifully, working with a technical crew that includes the great cinematographer Chris Menges (his films include The Mission, The Killing Fields and Michael Collins), editor Claire Simpson, composer Alexandre Desplat and production designer K.K. Barrett (a veteran of Spike Jonze’s films).
The performances are sublime.  It’s almost impossible to believe that Thomas Horn had never acted before (he was discovered as a contestant–and winner–on Teen Jeopardy):  in a stunningly difficult role that requires him to be center stage for the bulk of the story and share the screen with some of the world’s best actors, he never makes a wrong step.  The supporting cast, apart from Hanks, Bullock and the spectacularly good Von Sydow, includes Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman and Zoe Caldwell.  
It’s unfortunate that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is in danger of becoming the victim of a cultural war beyond its control.  All filmmakers can do is tell the best story they can, trying their utmost to move us, make us laugh and cry and feel, and illuminate the human condition.  Extremely Loud is one of the best pictures of the year; let the pundits rage on.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."