Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Film review by: Witney Seibold
As a mystery, Stephen Daldry’s investigative 9/11 treasure hunt “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is first rate. In a very simple and classical sense, the film bothers to present us with a mystery, and while the main character’s methods in solving it may be questionable, watching him do it is irresistible. As the character in question solves more and more, we learn more and more about his character, about his past, about his autism, and about the mysterious old man (Max Von Sydow) who has joined him on his excursions.
As a comment on post-9/11 New York, however, the film mutates into something nearly insufferably ham-fisted. The film follows a young boy, about 11 years old, named Oskar, played by first-time-actor and one-time “Jeopardy!” champ Thomas Horn. Oskar has just lost his father in the World Trade Center incident, and his structure-obsessed mind has no cogent way of dealing with the sorrow he feels. His father (played by Tom Hanks in flashbacks) had a knack for giving Oskar elaborate games and mysteries in order to relate to him. When Oskar finds a key in his dead father’s belongings, he sees it as a mystery to solve, and proceeds to map out a mass interview scheme to find to whom the key belongs; pressing a wide swath of New Yorkers on their lives.
Watching Oskar overcome his grief, and try to break free from his manic, detail-oriented routines in order to solve what this key might mean is fascinating, and I enjoyed the scavenger hunt aspects of the film. I’m a sucker for a good scavenger hunt movie, and tying it in with grief and escape is canny. That a mysterious neighbor joins him only adds to the mystery, and Max Von Sydow is really very good as the mute gentleman who seems to be able to say more with looks than his 11-year-old counterpart can with 30 minutes of nervous chatter. It’s when we see Daldry’s real intentions that the film begins to slip. Daldry, who previously made Big Issue films with “The Hours” and “The Reader” is in full-tilt pandering mode again. He is not merely telling a story about a boy, or even making a quiet comment on the way 9/11 shaped the lives of certain New Yorkers. He seems to be, through subtle messages, and extended shots of the actual building collapsing, making a definitive film about the ultimate New York experience. And while I’m sure there were plenty of New Yorkers who experienced the World Trade Center incident as the traumatic experience it was, I’m willing to bet it didn’t feel as encapsulated the way Daldry’s film makes it out to be.
If you’re going to tackle a Big Issue, and weave it into a mystery about a little kid getting over the death of his father, you have to use a light touch. And light touches is not Daldry’s talent. He makes beefed-up Hollywood melodramas that almost feel like silent films in how bombastically emotional they are. He’s making operas disguised as quiet little dramas. If you’re going to look at such a visible and well-remembered national disaster like 9/11, perhaps “operatic” should not be the note you’re going for. Someday, I’d love to see Daldry actually make an opera.
Horn is a first-time actor, but, thanks to his big blue eyes, and his precocious chatter, feels like a grade-A Hollywood moppet. He was fine, I suppose, but I think I’m not alone when I say that I found him to be a mite grating. Sandra Bullock plays his mother, but doesn’t have much in the way of direct influence on his life.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is certainly not as bad as I’ve made it sound. As I say, the mystery is interesting, and, for long sections, it’s hugely engaging. We really do want to know the mystery of the key, and we may even feel wrapped up in our young hero’s need to overcome his depression, and his need for life to seem rational and sane at all times. It’s only when looked at from not so close, and not so loud, that the film begins to feel a little trite. Otherwise, It’s fine.