Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ***
Directed by: Stephen Daldry.
Written by: Eric Roth based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer
Starring: Thomas Horn (Oskar Schell), Tom Hanks (Thomas Schell), Sandra Bullock (Linda Schell), Zoe Caldwell (Oskar's Grandmother), John Goodman (Stan the Doorman), Max von Sydow (The Renter), Viola Davis (Abby Black), Jeffrey Wright (William Black).

I’ve been trying to sort out my feelings about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ever since I read the book a few months ago – and rather than clarifying my feelings on it, the movie version simply served to make them more complicated. I cannot argue with those who find either version an emotional tour de force, as the story certainly does certainly provoke a strong emotional response. Yet, I cannot also not really argue with its detractors, who find the story overly manipulative that simply exploits our existing emotional response to 9/11 and doesn’t really earn our tears, because to a certain extent, that is also true. If the book wasn’t as well written as it was – and if the movie wasn’t as skillfully put together and acted as it is – it would be easier to dismiss it, but because both versions are as well told as they are, I cannot simply write it off.  I’m still not sure.

The movie centers on young Oskar Schell, played well by Thomas Horn, whose father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was trapped on the 106th floor of one of the WTC Towers on September 11th, and was killed. They have a funeral for him, even though they never found his body. Most of the action happens about a year after the attacks when Oskar is searching through his father’s things and discovers an envelope with one word written it – “Black” -  with a key inside. Oskar is convinced the key will unlock something that his father wanted him to know. Since the word Black is capitalized, he assumes it refers to a name. So, he makes a list of all the people with the last name of Black in New York City – all 472 of them – and decides to visit them one at a time. Sooner or later, he thinks he’ll find the right Black which will lead him to the right lock.

So yes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a fantasy. There is no one anywhere who would think it’s a good idea for a kid, who looks to be about 12 years old, to walk all over New York City by himself and introduce him to countless strangers. But if you are able to buy the concept of the film, you may find yourself uncommonly moved by it. The people named Black he meets represent a cross section of New Yorkers – all races, religions, colors, etc. and for the most part, they are nice to him. He tells them his story, and they cannot help but feel sorry for this odd little boy. He informs us in voiceover that he may have aspersers (the tests were “inconclusive”), so he is extremely intelligent, but lacks normal social skills – and losing his father has simply made things worse. He needs for everything to make sense, and he simply cannot make sense of what happened to his father. Why would people who didn’t even know him, let alone the others in the buildings and on the planes, kill him?

The film was directed by Stephen Daldry, who is no stranger to movies that evoke strong emotions, nor being criticized for making overly manipulative movies. All three of his previous films – Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader – all have very vocal supporters and detractors. He has always been skilled in working with actors, and here is no exception. Thomas Horn, who was discovered as a contestant on Jeopardy, delivers a good performance in a difficult role as a kid who lacks normal emotions, and yet has to evoke an emotional response from us – and he succeeds. Tom Hanks’ is the picture of perfect fatherhood – and you find yourself missing him, like Oskar does, when he’s not around. Sandra Bullock has a rather thankless role as the remaining parent – although she does get a good final scene, and does a fine job of it. Viola Davis, as the first Black Oskar visits, and Jeffrey Wright, as the last one, give depth to roles that could very easily been completely one note – once again showing why they are great actors. Best of all is Max von Sydow, known only as The Renter, who has moved in with Oskar’s grandma, and accompanies Oskar on some of his travels. He cannot, or perhaps simply will not, speak, and communicates solely through words written in a notebook, and the “yes” and “no” tattooed on his hands. Without an actor as great as Sydow, this role could have been insufferable, but he infuses it with great physical humor and grace. Sydow, one of the best actors in history, has delivered his best work in years here.

I am thankful that the movie eliminated some of the more troubling aspects of the novel – the Dresden and Hiroshima segments that simply did not work and felt unnecessary, and far too manipulative. This movie has its fair share of manipulation – and the films first image, of Hanks falling from the building, gets the movie off on the wrong note – too much too soon – but once the movie settles into its groove, its finds its footing.

The movie doesn’t necessarily play fair, only doling out information as it wants to, in order to extract the maximum emotional effect of every revelation – from the answering machines messages left by Hanks on the day of the attacks to Bullock’s final revelation. But it works, at least for this viewer. The movie did make me cry, on more than one occasion during its running time. The questions remains whether the movie actually earns those tears, or simply manipulates them out of you. And I have to be honest – I still don’t really know. The movie is made with skill, is well adapted by Eric Roth and is well acted its entire cast, so I decided to give the movie 3 stars. Yet, this is a movie that I know some viewers are going to love and some are going to hate – and I really cannot find fault with either of those opinions. This is a movie where you’ll simply have to decide for yourself.

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