Saturday, January 21, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The way you feel about Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (based upon the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer) will likely have much to do with how you feel about its main character. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a hyperarticulate nine-year-old with a fondness for maps, logic, and systems thanks to his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a Manhattan jeweler who had ambitions to be a scientist. Thomas is glimpsed in flashbacks (much more so than in the novel to my recollection), but the bulk of Extremely Loud takes place after Thomas dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The chance discovery of a key in his father's closet sends Oskar on a journey across the city in search of a last message or unexpected connection with his Dad.

Before one criticizes Extremely Loud on the grounds that Oskar is too precious, a literary creation who never becomes fully human on screen, it's worth thinking about the fact that 9/11 aside New York is the only place that could have held this story. Where else could a 9-year old move unnoticed, crossing the five boroughs in an attempt to meet everyone in New York whose name matches the one Oskar finds on the envelope containing the key? If Oskar can travel the city, often by foot, on Saturdays then why couldn't he grow up smart, curious, and shy in the believably sized apartment he shares with his father and mother Linda (Sandra Bullock)? Yes, Oskar's collection of his father's things looks like a little like a Joseph Cornell box or something from a Wes Anderson film, but it also contains the answering machine Oskar has hidden from his mother in an effort to keep her from hearing his father's last desperate messages. Many things about Oskar may be exceptional, but Daldry and Thomas Horn find something deeper working in Oskar than just a layer of personal idiosyncrasy. But yet it's here that the movie runs aground on the source material’s density. The grieving Oskar’s journey through New York is a journey from the particular to the universal; the cross-section of New Yorkers that Oskar meets regale him with blessings, shared stories of grief, and insights into their own lives. The ever-curious curious Oskar is conducting a “reconnaissance expedition” without his father for the first time and bringing back stories of the way people live, but the two hours plus of Extremely Loud don’t allow time for these stories. We see the obsessive method of Oskar’s search, but too little of the result. A few characters break through; there’s Viola Davis as an unhappy Brooklynite and best of all Max Von Sydow as “The Renter”, a mute man renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) who becomes an unlikely ally in Oskar’s search.. Von Sydow fills up his scenes in a way I’ve never quite seen before, with an economy of gesture and expression that works as a perfect foil for Horn’s verbal pyrotechnics. It’s a small, perfectly etched performance.

Thomas Horn is a former winner on the children’s edition of Jeopardy, and that’s almost too perfect a place for him to have been discovered. Horn carries the movie, projecting great intelligence and a need for connection. Daldry and writer Eric Roth use Oskar’s voice-over to carry the film, and though a few more scenes could have been allowed to breathe the narration explains just how far Oskar has to go both emotionally and physically. Finally Daldry’s movie isn’t Foer’s Extremely Loud, it strains a bit too hard for profundity for that. (Hanks' scenes are all on-the-nose, by design perhaps.) It is an honest try that works thanks to the performances of Horn, Von Sydow, and Bullock, whose best scenes come late and who suggests enormous reserves of love and anger in equal measure . Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a movie about a child’s mind, one that is just beginning to understand itself as the final credits roll.

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