Wes Anderson’s 9/11 movie?
That, unfortunately, is how much of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close feels. Adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film centers on 9-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a unique kid, possibly suffering from Asperger syndrome, who is struggling to process his father’s death in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Sensitive stuff, all around.
Contrary to other reviewers, I didn’t find the picture manipulative or exploitative. I believe Foer’s intent – as well as that of screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry – was honest. And yet the film doesn’t work, resulting in an uncomfortable combination of movie precociousness and real-world catastrophe.
Among the picture’s crucial mistakes is the casting. Tom Hanks appears in brief snippets as Oskar’s father, a pathologically attentive dad who invents elaborate, city-wide treasure hunts for his son. These games involve maps, trinkets and elaborate back stories, which Oskar throws himself into with a Max Fischer-style obsession. Hanks twinkles his eyes and speaks in riddles, yet he comes across less as caring and involved than cloying and clownish.
As Oskar’s mom, Sandra Bullock is drained of every ounce of sweetness, with nothing added to replace it (apparently this is what happens when you become a serious, Oscar-winning actress). Bullock also appears intermittently – to a ludicrous degree. The main plot involves a key Oskar discovers in his dad’s closet after his death; believing it’s a final clue, he traverses all over the city to find what it opens. Despite the fact that this quest takes him on all-day excursions while he’s supposed to be in school, his mother never says a word. (This curiosity is answered at the end of the film, but it’s still one of the many contrivances on which the picture relies.)
When it comes to Oskar, I think the casting is right (Horn is a believably wide-eyed bundle of nerves), but the character is a mess. It’s mentioned in passing that Oskar was once tested for Asperger, yet we never quite know the extent of the kid’s condition. This is probably because the movie wants him to be whatever is needed in any given scene. Sometimes Oskar is a stricken victim, terrified of bridges and talking to strangers; in other scenes he’s bravely barging into strangers’ homes.
So what about the movie works? I’m hesitant to pile onto Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, not only because I think its failings are honest, but also because I think Foer and this adaptation are actually onto something interesting. Oskar’s pathologically obsessive reaction to 9/11 – the quest with the key – is, in a way, a heightened version of the way many of us responded. We tend to react to the unspeakable in two ways: deny its existence (see the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State) or obsess over it, as Oskar does with the interactive illustration he creates of a figure falling from one of the towers. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is also an act of obsession. Flawed, perhaps, but honest and agonizing as well.