Friday, December 23, 2011

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

A Lost Father On 9/11/01, And His Son Holds The Key

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell in Stephen Daldry's New York City drama "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close". 
Warner Brothers 

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, December 23, 2011

Stephen Daldry brings the Kleenex factor to audiences once again with "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", which opens on Christmas Day in the U.S. before expanding its release on January 20. 

Set in New York City just before, during and after September 11, 2001, the pre-teen Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) finds a key left by his late father (Tom Hanks), who perished in Manhattan's World Trade Twin Towers on that awful day.  The envelope the key is in has the name "Black" written on it.  Oskar wants to complete the so-called "Reconnaissance Mission" his father left him: to find the so-called "Sixth Borough" in a five-borough Big Apple, and the lock that the key, in a city filled with billions of locks, fits.  If you thought Tom Cruise had an impossible endeavor climbing the Burj Khalifa, and running down it, well . . . that's a piece of cake compared to this mission. 

Oskar is angry, intense and precocious.  Oskar's fire-in-the-belly intrepidness is unquenchable, and his guilt-ridden mother (Sandra Bullock) wishes she, not her husband, died instead.  Oskar will self-servingly pound his chest and essentially say, "I'm the king of the world of grief," and scour the big city and its nine million stories for every Black in the telephone book to get the right fitting lock for his key.  Some Blacks are helpful.  Others not so much.  Oskar's riotous anger is vented at his mother, and their shouting match is a knockdown, drag-out affair.  Ms. Bullock's character is essentially a one-dimensional figure, a parent with no real there there.

Mr. Horn builds a screaming, annoying boy into a mature, righteous touchstone of grief, and Mr. Daldry, as he was in "The Reader" (a great film despite the Kleenex factor), "The Hours" and "Billy Elliot" is the conductor of overwrought sentiment, calculated to wring every last tear duct dry.  In "Extremely Loud" -- a title that accurately describes the emotional volume and tenor of his new film -- Mr. Daldry repeats themes and sledgehammers them into submission, just in case you blinked and missed them.  People tearing up, people holding hands to their chests, people hugging.  There's nothing wrong with these things, mind you, but in Mr. Daldry's film they are overused and out of context, or just exploited for maximum, extra strength manipulation of the audience.  And in the name of a snotty, bratty young boy's loss.  (Just to show us that Oskar is not the only sufferer, cameras briefly glimpse people at a 9/11/01 shrine.  Briefly.)

There are repeat plays of unsettling 9/11/01 phone messages left by Oskar's dad.  Oskar plays them over and over.  Oskar's mother hasn't heard them, and for good reason.  Even the scintillating Max Von Sydow, great and silent here as Oskar's helper, writes in Sharpie pen print on a piece of paper: STOP NO MORE. 

And that's how I felt when watching Mr. Daldry's film.  Enough of the weepy factor.  Weeping is fine in the movies but when done only in service of itself and nothing more, it's as gratuitous as the excessive violence in some films.  When a person being shot is dead, there's no need to keep shooting them.  This is a rule Mr. Daldry ignores, running through every red light to achieve the desired effect.  Yet he does so in such a cheap, expedient way, using 9/11/01 as a safe word when no credible story is apparent the way former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used it as a noun, a verb and an adjective.  "Extremely Loud", which should be renamed "Symphony Of Tears", is designed to tug at your heartstrings from the word go, but it's lazy and insidious in the way last year's awful "Remember Me" was. 

Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, there's little genuine effort in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" to give such a sensitive, painful day as September 11, 2011 the respect and commemoration for those lost that it deserves.  (Spike Lee's 2002 film "25th Hour" is still the only Hollywood-distributed film that frames September 11, 2001 and its aftermath in New York City with the gravity, sincere remembrance and respect it merits.)  Mr. Daldry treats the infamous and unforgettable day as some gothic spectacle: a haunting, empty day as a jagged soundtrack to the film's missing center.

In some parts -- and yes, that's right, "Extremely Loud" isn't the worst film of the year -- there are good moments, specifically between Mr. Horn, great here in doses as the lead actor and with Mr. Von Sydow, but the rest of the film, with its peripheral character cameos, is forgettable.  A subplot involving Jeffrey Wright's character is unnecessary, and both Mr. Wright and lady-of-the-moment Viola Davis are wasted here as the bloated two-hour-plus film looks for filler moments to stretch out Mr. Roth's rather tame script.  The episodes are supposed to connect but they don't fit together, even by Hallmark standards. 

The point of "Extremely Loud" is that in the wake of tragedy people need to be nicer to each other -- to help each other and take the good things out of life while they can.  Yet that point is drowned out by the film's forced, repetitive barrage of emotion.  The film even hints at its ending, and when Oskar asks, "do you think we'll find the lock?," he gets the answer one might expect.  This film has a definitive patina: it wanders and waits, then hits.  Wanders, waits, then hits.  Just like a spin cycle in a washing machine.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  It's a film that's dishonest in almost every way.  You feel its cynical, well-polished, bell-shiny neatness and cleanliness washing over you.  It's strangely akin to dreaming about watching a fine piece of decor suddenly burst into tears at the click of Addams Family fingers.

"Extremely Loud" is like trick candy on Halloween: a sweetener dangling a part-cherubic, part-Diablo-like Christmas child with a treacle-dripped smile before the audience's door to guide it to the gallows of hell.  Oskar smiles but his doe-eyed baleful look turns to intense disdain for adults, whom he constantly lies to.  He has contempt for just about everyone, which will turn many viewers off, particularly at this time of year.  Oskar's brat-like rantings are oddly incongruent to the warmth and coziness of an intended heartfelt story that Mr. Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth attempt but fail to engender. 

It's difficult to buy the idea that Mr. Hanks, still Hollywood's nicest guy, this day's Jimmy Stewart, would as the film's gentle paterfamilias, not have found a way to tame his angry son.  Anger is part of grief, yes, but I just wasn't sold on its execution here.  What did Ms. Bullock's character do to be so bad and have Oskar be so angry at her?  We don't get even a hint of this in the script.

The biggest mistake in Mr. Daldry's film is its over-orchestration of symbolism and cliché.  Cameras swirl from above like a bird suggesting Oskar's father is watching.  Pieces of floating paper, presumably from the World Trade Center, turn into birds, or is it vice versa?  The film attempts discretion yet there's little personal connection between 9/11/01, Mr. Hanks' character and the community of those named Black from the phone book.  These all feel like disparate pieces of other films.  Even Mr. Hanks' sudden narration is odd and obvious, and Mr. Horn's is the chief narrative voice.  The film's tone is false on most occasions, and hearing Mr. Hanks' voice at the film's climax is off-putting.  Those who disliked "Larry Crowne" for its idealism and cheeriness (I loved the film!) will likely put "Extremely Loud" next to it as a companion but for its opposite effect.  (Claire Simpson should have edited at least 30 extra minutes from it.)

Mr. Daldry has showcased young adolescent boys grappling to find themselves in a cold adult world, whether in "Billy Eliot", "The Reader" or here, where the results are less than stellar.  As "Extremely Loud" ends ask yourself: does nine-year-old Oskar really understand the journey he takes?  Does he truly find a sense of fulfillment?  Is he too wise?  Wiser than Dakota Fanning-wise?  Is the movie playing one big shell game on its audience?

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" has many flaws, from its title to its use of Alexandre Desplat's music score to its use of surrounding characters.  I hope that audiences instead make a choice this holiday season to hug their families and steer clear of this nauseating spectacle, a film that might have been better nine years ago in another director's hands, in another time, place and context.

With: John Goodman, Hazelle Goodman, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen Henderson.

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language.  The film's running time is two hours and six minutes.

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