Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn (129 min.)

I definitely had a strong reaction to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Stephen Daldry’s 9/11 drama that surprised everyone by getting the ninth and final Best Picture nomination this year. But it surely wasn’t the reaction the filmmakers were aiming for. There were no tears, only anger. Yes, as I sat watching this drama unfold, I grew increasingly angry with its cloying nature, deliberate manipulation of events, utter ignorance of logic, and occasional bad taste. I sat in awe of what I was seeing, trying to find out if this story was a real thing, something that talented people truly supported and had confidence in throughout production. There is a vast difference between a film that is simply bad and one that is bad on an offensive and pretentious level as high as this.

The film, based on a novel of the same name (I hear the novel is wonderful but I can’t imagine it being the case), focuses on Oskar Schell, a curious young boy who loses his father in the attacks on September 11. His father, seen in steady flashbacks, is played by Tom Hanks who doesn’t bother conveying a single human emotion. He is beyond the Father of The Year. Thomas Schell embodies every perfect human quality and never wavers from the desire to be so very perfect, so very flawless, that it makes his death in the twin towers that much more devastating. Oskar has a mild form of autism; his tests for Aspergers Syndrome were “inconclusive.” So Thomas spent seemingly all his time and energy setting up reconnaissance missions for young Oskar, laying out clues to mysteries which force him to talk to people. These reconnaissance missions send Oskar out into Manhattan where he visits with hobos and street people on a regular basis. Logic flaw number one.

On 9/11, Oskar discovers his father’s fate through a series of six messages which grow increasingly desperate. These messages are milked for all they’re worth throughout the picture. Oskar decides to hide the messages from his distant mother (Sandra Bullock), who apparently has never met her son before. He is consistently vindictive to his poor mom. One evening as Oskar is in his father’s closet he finds a key in a small envelope with the name “Black” written on it. He is certain this key is another clue to a new mission, and he will stop at nothing to find the matching lock for this key. The bellman of his building (John Goodman) suggests maybe Black is a person’s name, leading Oskar to the phone book where he finds 472 Blacks listed in the New York area. So without any regard for his mother – the only time he really speaks to her is to be a hateful shit – or his own safety or any logic, Oskar sets out to talk to all of these people and see if they might have known his father.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the first person he talks to will turn out to be the most important figure in his search. It is Abby Black, a troubled wife played by Viola Davis who does what she can with her ridiculous role. Oskar knocks on the door and talks his way into Abby’s home, where he is oblivious to the domestic troubles between her and her husband (Geoffrey Wright). She cannot initially help him, so he leaves but not before rudely taking a picture of Abby, who is crying and hiding her face. This was the first of very uncomfortable exchanges in the film. Oskar takes pictures of the people he meets with an antique camera and develops the pictures one by one. That would really be tiring I imagine.

Soon, Oskar takes on a companion, a mute living in his grandmother’s spare bedroom across the street, to help him on his search. Take some time to absorb that description, and then tell me this world in which these people live is supposed to be an accurate representation of reality. The mute is played by Max won Sydow, who communicates through a notepad and “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms for ease. This type of character might be perfect for literary fiction, but as represented in a film it is kitschy and ridiculous. And there is, I suppose, a mystery surrounding the identity of this man, but anyone who is paying even a little attention should be able to figure it out before the characters.

From the start, there is no room for logic in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I could never buy into the fact that Oskar, a pre-teen with mild autism, would be allowed by his wonderful father and callous mother to wander the streets of Manhattan all day every day, skipping school and harassing a wide cross section of the New York population. The complete disregard for anything true in Oskar’s trek grew increasingly maddening. Thomas Horn, a child Jeopardy champion, is supposedly good in the role depending on where you read. I found him to be a rude little jerk on a regular basis, autism or no autism. And all of his little quirks, counting his steps and using a tambourine for balance (or something) and counting his lies, ring completely false and contrived. None of the performances here ring true in any way, especially Bullock whose character pulls off one of the most audaciously offensive 180s in film history during the third act.

As for the use of 9/11, well, it took just about everything in my power not to walk out when the twin towers, inserted with CGI and the billowing clouds of smoke we all recognize, were used along with some key music to force the audience into a certain reaction. And later, when Oskar shows us pictures he has studied of people falling out of the towers, another manipulative move, I had just about had it. I would say the pictures were the breaking point for me, but I had long reached that several scenes earlier. And, on top of the bad taste and manipulative narrative structure, the film is a terrible bore. When emotionally impacting moments are the foundation of a film and those moments don’t deliver, you are left with a film that does nothing or says nothing. There are worse films, sure, but none that are this bad surrounded by so much recognition. Here is a shameful film. I don’t know what makes me angrier, the fact that this film exists, or the fact that the Academy, paying no attention to general consensus, nominated a movie based solely on the fact that it stars Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and the twin towers. There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.