Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) – Stephen Daldry

Grief is not a puzzle that can be solved. We are not as some think of ghosts, waiting for closure so we can move on. I can understand why a boy would place importance in a mysterious key and treat the search for its lock as a healing gesture after the senseless death of his father, but I can’t understand why the adults around him would let him take it so far. Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is not a very good film. It follows a cloying, pandering story about a boy in pain but doesn’t treat the boy or his pain with much seriousness, and most offensive of all, it uses the cause as a narrative gimmick. Young Oscar Schell has lost his father, who was in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. His father raised him to be curious, precocious and always on the look out for the strange and trivial. As such, when Oscar finds a key in his father’s closet, he’s convinced that it was left for him and that if he finds where it fits he’ll be closer to his father, or something. He’s sort of vague on what he wants to accomplish, but we in the audience understand that it’s a form of closure. Thomas Schell, played in flashbacks by Tom Hanks, is a likeable sort who encourages Oscar and sets up open-ended scavenger hunts for him, for example the search for a “sixth borough” of New York that allegedly floated away. Oscar is supposedly shy and the treks that his father sends him on are designed to help him with that, certainly he gets over it by the time he is off to find the home for the key. He has one clue, the word “Black” and he’s determined to interview the nearly 500 people with that last name in New York in person. Why he didn’t want to call, I’m not sure. The search seems fruitless and Oscar gets frustrated and who can blame him? Have you ever tried to make it to the Rockaways without using public transportation? Oh yeah, Oscar, who claims to be governed by the practicality of the world and the belief that everything has a rational reason, is frightened of the subway, and of bridges, and people. It’s fine for a young man to have these fears, but they are not rational. The scenes of his search are light and fantastical as he meets strange people with bizarre stories of their own, it’s unfortunate that they are coupled with horrible moments of the violence of 9/11, the pain it caused and the terror it struck. The movie isn’t sure about who’s telling the story and often we abandon Oscar for Linda (Sandra Bullock), his mom. She shares a phone conversation with Hanks while he’s in the struck tower that is awesome in its rawness, but it’s at odds in a movie that is principally about a child that refers to 9/11 as “the worst day.” About an hour into Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close I began longing for Wes Anderson to direct this movie, it certainly would have looked better and would have been funnier too. Besides, the swift swing from deep to shallow storylines requires a deft hand that Daltry reminds us he doesn’t have. Oscar seems to be the ideal Anderson protagonist he’s strange, he’s awkward and intense, he creates paper crafts, has multiple interests and peccadilloes. In the right hands he could have been a version of the character Jason Schwartzman plays and replays in Andersons movies, but for Daldry, he become kind of annoying. Furthermore, the movie is based on a book and there are some elements that are brought on the screen that could possible have stayed on the page. For example, Oscar shakes a tambourine that helps him relax, a fine detail in a novel but when a visual an audio medium you can imagine how annoying this gets in the hands of someone who is constantly anxious. Eventually, Oscar forms a union with a renter in his grandmother’s house (Max Von Sydow), who is mute and communicates by writing on a note pad. He also has “Yes” on his left hand and “No” on his right. The renter decides to help Oscar for a reason that becomes obvious to the audience much earlier than it does to Oscar. Also, why does a man who can’t speak need yes and no on his hands when there are accepted forms of nonverbal communication for those words? Von Sydow is very good, even when his usual gravel voice is taken away from him. He adds a gravitas to a movie that doesn’t deserve it. Also good is Jeffrey Wright in a small part as the owner of the key. Bullock, Hanks and Viola Davis, as one of the interviewees, do their best with what they have but it seems like they get precious few moments of adult time before the story focuses back on Oscar, who needs help more professional than he’s getting from an old mute. The movie tries for light touches but they miss completely because the whole thing is a tonal disaster. We can’t go along with a child’s crusade for a mystery and laugh at the cutesy jokes when those scenes are interspersed with that same child listening to his father’s dying words on an answering machine. Cute doesn’t mix with the idea of people leaping to their deaths out of a collapsing building. The last time my stomach reacted to this unholy mix of humor and horror was in the miserable Life is Beautiful which used the Holocaust as a backdrop for a stand-up routine. But at least that movie was skillful in its tasteless manipulation. Even the visual language of Extremely Close & Incredibly Loud movie is in shambles. There are lighting errors, it’s too bright at night at times and light seems to hit people from sources we can’t comprehend. Continuity issues; Oscar understands the renters notes even though we can see he wouldn’t be able to read them, car windows go up and down from shot to shot, drinks refill themselves. It’s a slapped together disaster. Furthermore, for two hours it pursues the key narrative, frustratingly drops it as a macguffin but not the sentimental healing it represents. There are times when Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close can generate real feeling but its spectral narrative force is such a loaded subject, that’s fish in a barrel. In many other ways it barely passes as a movie.  There may be a good movie here, but not in these hands. I don’t know if Anderson could save Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close but I do know that Daldry would have ruined Rushmore.

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