“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”: Post-9/11 trauma, made cute and dull

The sentimental bestseller "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" becomes a dreary Tom Hanks-Sandra Bullock weeper

Topics: Movies, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer, 9/11,

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close": Post-9/11 trauma, made cute and dullThomas Horn and Tom Hanks in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

A few weeks ago I wrote a largely negative review of Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed “Margaret,” a sprawling and ambitious attempt at weaving a multi-character cinematic tapestry about life in post-9/11 New York. I stand by every word, but I also understand why a group of critics and cinephiles have campaigned to get “Margaret” on the awards-season radar screen, in the face of Fox Searchlight’s evident decision to abandon it on the curb like a stillborn hamster. “Margaret” is coming back to New York’s Cinema Village this weekend, and if you’re in the neighborhood and want to see a flawed, big-hearted, intermittently marvelous and maddening epic about the legacy of 9/11, go check it out. You certainly won’t find any such grand emotions in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which renders Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling 2005 novel into unconvincing Hollywood mush.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is pretty much the last of this year’s supposedly major holiday movies to be unveiled for the press and public, and if I were director Stephen Daldry (he of “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot”), I might’ve wanted to sit on it a bit longer. It’s not a terrible film, exactly, but something worse, an irritating and enervating one. A longtime theater director who made the switch to film in the early 2000s, Daldry has a propensity for pretty, almost vampiric movies that are elegantly staged but drain the life out of their source material — and Foer’s novel didn’t have too much of that to begin with. A whimsical fable about an overly precious and eccentric 9-year-old, loaded down with Asperger-ish tics and phobias, who goes on a self-appointed citywide treasure hunt after his father dies in the twin towers, “Extremely Loud” always struck me as a sentimental contrivance. (I started the book and couldn’t finish it.)

Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth remove some of the book’s more maddening byways and curlicues (such as the epistolary back story of the main character’s German grandparents) but can’t evade its biggest problems. What they wind up with is something like an especially slow-moving and unnaturally grave Wes Anderson movie, with a hero you constantly want to smack, mixed with an after-school special about grief and healing. Throw in a bunch of awkward, still-life supporting performances — Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, all sitting around looking sad — skillful cinematography by British vet Chris Menges and a Minimalist orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat, and it all adds up to something that looks and feels classy yet is really minor-league schmaltz.

Nine-year-old Oskar Schell (played by one-time “Teen Jeopardy” contestant Thomas Horn, in his acting debut) feels like a literary creation all the way, a precocious and painfully odd city kid who’s afraid of almost everything and way too dependent on his dad, a Manhattan jeweler named Thomas. (You know, I like Tom Hanks, and he’s perfectly OK in this role, but he’s almost the last guy I would consider to play a New York shopkeeper of German and/or Jewish extraction.) Thomas has constructed a long-running scavenger hunt designed to draw Oskar out of his shell, and purportedly to solve the mystery of the missing “sixth borough” of New York City, which was dragged away at some point by secretive authorities for unknown reasons. This quest is interrupted after Thomas is vaporized in the World Trade Center, and the traumatized Oskar conceals his father’s last phone messages from his mother (Bullock). But when Oskar finds a key hidden inside a vase in his dad’s closet, he thinks it’s a clue from beyond the grave, and sets out on a mission to interview all 800-odd New Yorkers who share the surname Black (which was written on the envelope that held the key).

I get that you either have to suspend your disbelief and travel with the tambourine-jingling, subway-phobic Oskar from Fort Greene to Hamilton Heights to Astoria to Broad Channel — enjoying the journey and not fixating on the destination, etc. — or simply bail out, but I was supposed to write this review and couldn’t do the latter. In a larger sense, the problem with Daldry’s film is that it’s much too polite and pretty and classed-up, and lacks the nebbishy intensity and conviction that Foer’s mock-Salinger universe at least pretends to possess. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” demanded the real Wes Anderson or, better still, Michel Gondry — someone who would treat Oskar’s filing systems and maps and sets of regulations and French Foreign Legion-style accessories with the utmost seriousness, and even make them the point of the whole enterprise.

What we get instead is frankly a drag, a slow-moving tale of healing and redemption with a low-wattage resolution you’ll glimpse miles away and a whole bunch of trailing loose ends. (Two of the major questions you’re asking yourself after reading my plot synopsis are never answered.) Oh, it’s enjoyable enough when von Sydow’s on hand as Oskar’s mysterious European grandfather, mostly because the titanic Swede is always terrific even when absolutely silent (as here). I did hear a little sniffling around me in the darkness, so if you’re an easy mark you may need a hankie. But, for the love of God, a movie that’s about 9/11 and autism and growing up without a dad should leave you crying buckets, and this one is too restrained and arty and highfalutin — I believe the correct expression in Daldry’s homeland would be “piss-elegant” — even to accomplish that.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>