Monday, February 06, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close / ** (PG-13)

Oskar Schell: Thomas Horn
Thomas Schell: Tom Hanks
Linda Schell: Sandra Bullock
The Renter: Max von Sydow
Oskar’s Grandmother: Zoe Caldwell
Abby Black: Viola Davis
William Black: Jeffrey Wright
Stan the Doorman: John Goodman

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by Eric Roth. Based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Running time: 129 min. Rated PG-13 (for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language).

I remember exactly where I was when I first learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t a resident of New York City, although I had been just four years prior to that date. I remember the 1993 attack. I knew instantly it was a terrorist attack, although the news media was reluctant to report it as such in those first few minutes. I cannot imagine what it must’ve been like to be in the city that day.

The new movie “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” tries to give us a story of a 9/11 survival family. The movie mostly takes place about a year after “the worst day,” and is told through the eyes of a boy who lost his father in the first tower collapse. Through flashbacks we get to know the boy’s father, Thomas Schell. Tom Hanks (“Larry Crowne”) plays Oskar’s father as an incredibly patient man whose death would be a loss to all the lives he touched.

Oskar is admirably played by first time actor Thomas Horn, who was first seen by the film’s producers on an episode of “Jeopardy!”. Oskar may be autistic. He says the tests were inconclusive. Oskar used to play many games of discovery with his father. Since the attacks, Oskar has been lost. Unable to connect with his mother, he searches for a way to continue to connect with his father.

Sandra Bullock’s role as the mother, Linda, is baffling. She’s non-existent in Oskar’s life and in the screenplay for most of the movie. We get to see her for a few reaction shots and one flashback to the day of the attacks, but she’s strangely absent from all the events going on in her son’s life. Bullock (“The Blind Side”) does the best she can with the small moments she’s given, but I can’t imagine what made her decide this would be a good follow up to her Oscar win. When she reveals where she has been while her troubled son has been trying to cope, we realize all logic has been thrown out the window for her character. How she could think her actions would allow her to connect with her son better than her actual presence is inexplicable.

The boy has other family. His grandmother lives in the high rise next to his, and he communicates with her through walkie-talkie. She has a mysterious boarder, a man who doesn’t speak—an Oscar nominated performance by the great Max von Sydow (“Minority Report”). It’s no surprise that his secret will be an important plot point. The surprising thing is that the filmmakers seem to think his secret will come as a surprise to the audience. His identity is rather obvious from just about the second we learn of his existence.

Oskar finds a key in his father’s closet and thinks it might be something his dad left for him to discover. The key has the name “Black” labeled on the envelope in which the boy finds it. How the boy is supposed to know this is a name and not a color or some other reference, I’m not sure. So, he sets out to meet every person named Black in the Five Burroughs of New York and see if any of them has a lock the key fits. Uh-huh. An Oscar nominee for her role in “The Help”, Viola Davis provides one of the stronger characters as the first person Oskar seeks out.

On top of this, Oskar’s undiagnosed condition makes him afraid of just about every element of New York life, so he won’t use any public transportation. He will walk to every address. Uh-huh.

The filmmakers make it easier on themselves by not defining Oskar’s condition, although Aspergers is mentioned, perhaps because it seems to be the current ‘in’ disease for socially disconnected highly intelligent children. Oskar’s autism is convenient. It allows him the obsessive/compulsive nature to undertake such a search, but it never really gets out of control to the point where he can’t function, which is unrealistic. It helps them toward their point that we all as humans want to make sense of tragedies like 9/11. I’m not sure exploiting a legitimate disorder like Aspergers is the right way to go about doing this, however.

Director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) creates some wonderful imagery in Oskar’s search for meaning. The images of people falling from the skyscrapers on that fateful day obviously had a profound effect on Daldry, as it did on all of us. He tastefully references this image at several different points throughout the movie, forcing his characters and the audience to confront one of the more frightening aspects of those nightmarish events.

Certainly as a country we need movies that deal with this important event in our history. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” has some good observations to make on how we cope with such tragedies in our lives. When you look at its significance against those monumental events, it is a minor effort compared to such films as “United 93” and the criminally underrated “World Trade Center”. Its makers, unfortunately, incorporate implausible details into their story, which distract from its point and dilute its power. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” just misses its mark.

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