A director's misguided 9/11 odyssey
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 20, 2012
There's a fine line between precocious and insufferable, and it's a line continually crossed by "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Stephen Daldry's extremely labored and incredibly crass adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel.
The story of how a young boy processes the trauma of his father's death on Sept. 11, 2001, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" brazenly mines the imagery of that day to create a morbid pastiche of iconographic symbols, from the recurring motif of a man falling from the World Trade Center to a blizzard of papers that blew through bluebird skies. Juxtaposing those ghastly images with a precious, overworked aesthetic of camera-ready eccentricity, Daldry hijacks 9/11 for this own aestheticized agenda, in this case to invest an act of nihilistic murder with unearned healing and false uplift.
It doesn't help that the audience's guide through this vale of energetically milked tears goes from sympathetic to irritating in the time it takes to say "Indigo child." Oskar Schell - gifted and talented with a vengeance - narrates the story of how he lost his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), on what he calls The Worst Day and how a key he left behind somehow figures into an imaginary game they used to play, having to do with Reconnaissance Expeditions to find New York's Lost Sixth Borough.
The capitals are added, but they convey the sense of Italicized, Underlined Emphasis that pervades "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which tracks Oskar on an odyssey through New York as he meets random people, tells them about his loss and thereby spins an invisible web of transcendence everywhere he roams. That Oskar comes across as pushy and entitled shouldn't be blamed on Thomas Horn, the young newcomer Daldry plucked from "Jeopardy!" to play him. Nor should the overweening self-regard of the enterprise be laid at the feet of Max von Sydow (playing a mysterious mute neighbor of Oskar's), Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright or Sandra Bullock, who, as Oskar's mother, brings a welcome dose of honesty and authenticity to a movie dedicated to artifice. (For his part, Hanks seems strategically cast to telegraph the message You Are Hereby Ordered to Love This Man in a role just slightly more meaty than a cameo.)
Rather, the fault clearly lies with Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, the latter of whom, after all, wrote "Forrest Gump," another cloying sentimentalization of collective memory. Daldry, who directed "The Hours" and "The Reader," obviously knows his way around heart-rending material. But rather than the rigor and restraint that's called for here, he lays the sentiment and studied idiosyncracies on with a trowel like a pastry-maker who can't stop piling on the whipped cream. Nowhere is his profligate hand more evident than in the film's final image, a wish-fulfillment fantasy as cheap as it is cynical. "Stop! No more!" von Sydow's character scrawls on a piece of paper at one point. I couldn't have said it better myself.
Contains emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and profanity.