There are tearjerkers, and then there are tearjerkers. One is okay– the kind that simply tells a sad story and leaves you plenty of room to get overcome by your emotions and just cry it out. The other is not okay– the kind that feels so contrived and so maudlin it’s almost as if the director is personally burrowing into your eye sockets and jumping on your tear ducts to force the crying to start.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the latter– a cloying mess that ends up feeling more like a tasteless exploitation of 9/11 than a heartfelt love letter to all the people we lost that day.
The film, based on the equally contentious book by Jonathan Safran Foer (The New York Times called it an ‘irritating novel’), tells the story of Oskar (Thomas Horn)– a young boy who loses his father (Tom Hanks) on what the kid comes to call The Worst Day.
Prior to the tragedy, father and son shared ‘reconnaissance expeditions’– scavenger hunts designed to help bring the socially-challenged Oskar out of his shell. (We’re told he was tested for Asperger Syndrome, and that the tests were ‘inconclusive’.)
After his dad’s death, Oskar discovers a random key in his father’s possessions with only the word ‘Black’ to identify it. He deduces that it must be the starting point for another of his father’s quests, so he sets out to meet all 472 New Yorkers with the surname Black, in hopes of figuring out what the key opens, therefore solving his dad’s last riddle.
Along the way he meets a variety of perfectly-diverse people, including divorcing couple William and Abby Black (Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis), a ‘hugger’, and a family who loves horses. He also meets The Renter (Max von Sydow), a kindly mute who’s staying with Oskar’s grandmother and who communicates by scribbling in his little notepad.
Together Oskar and The Renter take their quest to the streets of New York, but the story quickly begins to play second fiddle to the underlying story of 9/11. Through flashbacks we learn that Oskar came home that day to find six messages from his dad on the answering machine, each one reflecting more of his father’s anxiousness at being trapped in the top floors of the first tower.
In all fairness, it’s a fine enough idea for a story– boiling down the most tragic day in modern American history into the story of a father’s relationship with his only child. The problems begin with what now ranks as among the most annoying voice-over narrations ever put on film; screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) just doesn’t know when to have Oskar shut up and instead let us just see for ourselves what’s happening. It’s almost as if Roth was worried we wouldn’t realize (without some prodding) that our hearts should be breaking here, here, and here.
Daldry does a fine enough job directing; the movie is certainly pretty and interestingly shot, and he’s able to get excellent performances throughout (Sandra Bullock is especially strong as Oskar’s widowed mother), but the boy’s cute little character quirks (toting around his tambourine, taking a candid snapshot of every single face he sees, and refusing to take public transportation, etc.) quickly start to feel like a strenuously forced effort to make us feel sorry for the pitiful, precocious little kid. And for that, we have no one but Foer to blame.
Apparently, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the worst-reviewed movie in the past ten years to earn a Best Picture Oscar nod. The only comfort we can take with its nomination is the rock-solid truth that it has no chance of actually winning.