MOVIE REVIEW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


9/11 is this generation's Kennedy Assassination and another generation's Pearl Harbor.  It is the defining tragedy that froze our lives for a time and the kind you remember every detail of, from what you were doing to where you were.  That being said, tragic historical events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are too real to get a fictional movie treatment.  It's different with historical victories.  Years ago, it was OK to have a John Wayne character win every battle of World War II because celebrating victory is different than celebrating loss.  Victories equal happy endings.  For all of the tragedy and losses of WWII (Pearl Harbor, the death march of Bataan, the Holocaust, D-Day, etc.), they are made right because of the ultimate end victory.  You couldn't get away with that a generation later if say Burt Reynolds, in full Smokey and the Bandit swagger, was rescuing Vietnam POWs, because Vietnam registers more as a tragedy than a victory.  Take any great Vietnam film (The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Coming Home, among many others) and some form of loss is its central theme trumping victory.  The happy endings in those movies, if any, have a price.

Don't get me wrong.  Movies are allowed to sugarcoat tragedy, but any happy ending can't devalue the original loss.  Michael Bay put a huge dash of fiction in Pearl Harbor, but used the Doolittle raids to end the film on a win, but did it with a cost as to not toy completely with history.  Even former box office champion Titanic took many fictional liberties, but knew that you couldn't put a happy ending on a tragedy.  Once again, the victory cannot out-gain the loss.

The events of 9/11 don't have an ultimate end victory.  The death of Osama bin Laden last year can't be used as an epilogue note to our two most prominent 9/11 movies to date, Paul Greengrass's United 93 or Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. 9/11 has isolated and individual happy endings, but none of them can erase the total loss.  We knew there was not going to be a happy ending to United 93.  All you could do was honor the valor present.  Oliver Stone's World Trade Center rightfully stuck to a true story of the last two men rescued alive from the rubble.  Neither movie had their fiction outperform the history.

Because of that prudent and respectful need for tragedy not to be devalued, if we, as an audience, are going to invest in such a personal story of a family affected by 9/11, we would really prefer it to be true.  That's because there are more than enough real, grieving families that we shouldn't need a fictional one.  After all of that discussion, that is, undoubtedly, the biggest flaw for Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  It, wrongfully on many levels, uses 9/11's tragedy to push a fictional story with fictional emotions to purposefully tug our heartstrings tied to a very real event.  Blame the 2005 source novel by Jonathan Safran Foer first, but the 2011 film's exploitative use of such a recent tragedy is a cold ploy and a mean trick.

Thomas Horn, a Kids Week Jeopardy! winner in his first movie role, stars as Oskar Schell, the son of Thomas and Linda Schell (Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock).  We meet him avoiding the funeral of his father, who died on 9/11, and daydreaming that Thomas was a jumper from one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  As a sensitive and intelligent pre-teen with symptoms of Asperger syndrome on the autistic spectrum, strange events like his father's death and funeral confuse him.  The father he refuses to let go of was the benevolent son of a jeweler who never made excuses for Oskar and challenged him to develop his many divergent talents and intellect, through mysteries, scavenger hunts, and games.  Now alone with his grieving mother, he has a terrifically hard time understanding why his father was taken from them (rightfully so).  Withdrawn from Linda, he confides solely with his grandmother who lives across the street via walkie-talkie.

That mystery of meaning is made deeper for him when Oskar discovers a mysterious key inside of a vase among his father's last belongings.  Thinking that it could be a clue to his fate, Oskar becomes determined to find what lock the key opens.  The only clue he has is the name "Black" on the envelope the key was found in.  With an extraordinarily unbelievable level of organization and logic, he plans and sets out to visit the 417 people in the five burrough New York City phonebook with the last name Black.  This quest, which he hides from his mother, intersects his story with that of many interesting New Yorkers he meets along the way, most notablyThe Help's Best Actress nominee Viola Davis, who open their hearts to help him come to peace with his loss and solve the key's mystery.  Along the way, he befriends a mute elderly stranger (Max von Sydow, an Academy Award nominee for this role) who rents a room from his grandmother and begins to join Oskar on his searches.

All of this brings out the second big flaw of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  The film brutally characterizes what a child on the spectrum is like.  As a former school teacher who has been around and has friends who have children of their own on the spectrum, I can attest that the tone of Oskar is all wrong.  Oskar's symptoms of sensory sensitivity, divergent focus and attention issues, unique intellect, and other compulsive habits are accurate to Asperger syndrome, but are turned up and over-amplified way too far.  It wrongfully multiplied quirk for quirk's sake and for Hollywood showmanship.  On top of that ambivalence, Hollywood naturally can't give a kid of such quirk a normal wardrobe.  No, Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth nails Thomas Horn with every quirky costume mismatch possible just so you don't forget to call him weird or a freak.  It's strange. The filmmakers had the courage to develop a main character with special needs, but still made sure you scoffed at their differences with ignorance.  It would be like asking The King's Speech to take place in the ghetto, just to be ghetto.  

The result is an Oskar character that you will find more annoying and precocious than endearing, when endearing is required, especially when the film is trying to steal a fictional happy ending from the real tragedy of 9/11.  Honestly, you end up feeling more for Max von Sydow's mute stranger and Sandra Bullock's grieving wife for having to deal with Oskar than seeing Oskar grow and cope along his journey.  Thomas Horn, for a first time actor, does a very good job to be different, but comes across as over-coached and over-deliberate as Dakota Fanning is in everything she does.  His performance doesn't look or feel natural, compared to someone like Asa Butterfield from Hugo, who is, coincidentally, the same age as Horn.

The final flaw of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is unfulfilled promise.  Not that the movie is an episode of TV's Lost, where rugs are pulled out from underneath us a frequent pace, but we are left with more questions than answers.  Motives we've been teased with are not revealed or turn into contrivances.  Promised origins are not explained and the revealed secrets we wait for and root for all movie underwhelm with disappointment.  That idea of disappointment sums up the finished product of the film.  We were motivated by such promise with a great director like Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, and he Reader) and a pair of Oscar winners (Hanks and Bullock) together for the first time.  Though it tried to sugarcoat a tragedy, the movie could have told a great 9/11 story with a excellent cast, but instead coaxed our emotional memories to care for someone who's not real and doesn't deserve it.

LESSON #1: IF THINGS WERE EASY TO FIND, THEY WOULDN'T BE WORTH FINDING-- This is the brilliant Tom Hanks quote that makes every TV commercial for the movie, but it's perfect and true.  Oskar's quest isn't easy, even if it is unrealistic, but he tackles every clue with gusto.  We live in a generation of instant information and instant gratification where the challenges of a good mystery are too often dismissed and lost by blind entitlement and "give-it-to-me-now" mentalities.

LESSON #2-- THE INHERENT DIFFICULTIES POSSESSED BY THOSE WHO ARE ON THE SPECTRUM-- Between sensory processing disorder, Asperger's syndrome, and the many levels and incarnations of autism, those beset with those types of conditions have incredibly difficult challenges in life.  Not everyone is Rain Man like you see in the movies and misdiagnosis and misconceptions are common.  The other catch that people don't get is that there are no cures for these behaviors.  There's no remission like cancer or moments of "acting up" like ADD or ADHD.  Those people will carry these traits all of their lives and have to learn to cope and deal as only they can.  Only the right therapy, routines, habits, practices, learning styles, and support systems can aid in their adjustment to live with, but never conquer, their conditions.  Despite the amped-up portrayal of Oskar, the film has two great and patient parents who know to work within Oskar's strengths and not always try to "fix" what can't be fixed.  Most excellent of all, the "something's wrong" label never appears.

LESSON #3: SUDDEN AND UNSUBSTANTIATED DEATH BRINGS A DIFFERENT KIND OF GRIEVING-- Oskar has a tough time all movie long trying to grasp that there wasn't a reason why his father died.  His mentality and condition cannot accept that lack of logic.  His mother tries her best to explain that not all deaths, especially the circumstances surrounding the innocent victims of 9/11 who were going about their daily lifes, involve purpose, fate, cause, or reason.  Not having that type of intellectual and emotional closure produces a different type of grieving than a scenario when death is certain, prepared for, or expected.