Stars: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow
Director: Stephen Daldry
Maybe I've been watching too many art house and independent films lately, because as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close began to unfold, I felt there was real potential there.... BUT... then that aura of SLICK HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION just started dripping from every pore of it, and I knew what I was in for. How to describe...well...blatant manipulation of your emotions at every turn, where the poignancy of it seems manufactured, rather than stemming naturally from the story. Let's see, what would a character naturally say and do here? Hmm...forget that...gotta be something really gooey to get those tears gushing.
Oskar (Thomas Horn) is a precocious, but socially inept 11 year-old whose dad, Thomas Schell, (Tom Hanks) perished in the World Trade Center on 9/11. By all accounts, he was a good dad. He invented scavenger hunt games and made up stories to stimulate his son's imagination and get him to interact with other people. There's the fanciful story of New York's "lost sixth borough," for example. (Which kinda took me in, even.)
On the day of the tragedy, Oskar stands frozen and listens to the increasingly frantic phone calls on the answering machine from his father. He decides to conceal the recordings from his mother (Sandra Bullock). A year later, the boy is still consumed by his loss. In his dad's closet, he finds a key in a vase with the word "Black" written on the envelope. Oskar surmises that the key must have been left for him to find, and that it must fit the lock of some box that contains undiscovered messages from his father, in the event of his early demise. And that Black must be the surname of the person who holds the key (no pun intended) to this mystery. So he compiles a list of everyone in the five boroughs named Black (and there's a crapload of them) and sets off on an odyssey to visit each one of them until the mystery is solved.
Again, there were some things here that drew me in...the disparate people that he meets...their own stories of personal loss, or just the touching ways in which they send him off with love and godspeed. Unfortunately, and I don't know if this was intended, or it's just the way the inexperienced young actor comes off, (they found him from an appearance on Jeopardy) Oskar is extremely obnoxious and incredibly annoying--an insufferable little brat who feels entitled to make all the world feel guilty about HIS pain, and HIS loss, because no one else has ever experienced such things, you see. He continually spouts off from recall a bunch of amazing facts and figures in a monotone staccato voice, like some kind of idiot-savant, to illustrate his points and show us how bright he is for his age.That's fine as far as it goes--but in scenes that would seem to require it, the young Mr. Horn appears unable to convey any real nuance of emotion.
Why was he chosen for the protagonist role in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Because Haley Joel Osment and Macaulay Culkin are grown up now...what do you want from me??? (But he's got plenty of time to learn his craft, and no doubt will improve.)
No one feels obliged to put Oskar in his place. Not even his mother, who is still dealing with her own pain, but tries to carry it with some semblance of dignity. In what is surely the most manipulative scene in this movie, her son, with venom in his eyes, tells his mom that he wishes SHE had been in the World Trade Center that day, instead of his dad. (If you can imagine.) There is a pregnant pause--we're supposed to wait for her reply because it will surely be good--but I knew immediately what she was going to say. The one self-deprecating thing she could have said designed to wrench the maximum amount of boo-hoo from the audience.
The only one who tries to rein the kid in is the mysterious man who rents a room at Oskar's grandmas place, played by the great Max von Sydow. He doesn't speak. Not because he can't, but because he's suffered a trauma of his own. The renter decides to accompany the boy on his arduous odyssey through New York City.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also suffers from some totally implausible plot elements near the end. With all of its flaws, the film is still an extremely (see how I like to play off that word?) effective tearjerker. There was lots of sniffling going on around me in the theatre, and I know all those people didn't have colds. Me, I had a little piece of rock in my eye...or something...and kept tearing up to try to flush it out.
Bring lots of tissue.
Grade: B --