Exceedingly phony and insufferably cloying, Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close begs the question: ten years after the events of September 11, 2001, are we ready as a nation to turn our collective trauma into simpering schmaltz?
No. No. A thousand times: no. What has happened this year? From J. Edgar to The Iron Lady, from The Help to Red Tails, movie makers seems intent on approaching very serious historical events in a way that just reinforces every pejorative definition of the adjective “Hollywood.” Is there something about a suffering economy that makes the American people crave shallow, manipulative movies that let us pretend we’re grappling with historically important subjects, and emotionally weighty subject matter, without actually having to do so? I understand that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but that’s not what’s happening here: these movies have little or no redeeming elements mixed in with their sickeningly sweet syrup: they are pure snake-oil being hawked with misleading and criminally exaggerated claims of importance.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close takes the idea of making sense of the 9/11 attacks far too literally, embodying the quest for meaning in an 11-year-old boy named Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn, handed an impossible role that could never be anything but annoying). Oskar has some unspecified disorder along the autism spectrum, and so his saintly father Thomas (Tom Hanks) arranges “reconnaissance expeditions” for him: complicated treasure hunts that force Oskar to go out into the city and engage with other human beings. After Thomas dies in the World Trade Center, Oskar finds a key in Thomas’s closet in an envelope labeled “Black.” Convinced that this is a message from his late father to undertake one final quest, Oskar goes in search of the key’s owner, making a plan to visit—on foot—every single person named Black in the New York City area.
Excessively contrived and unforgivably twee, to call this set-up a “conceit” is an insult to conceits: it’s simply preposterous. I spent most of the movie wanting to report Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) to child-protective services for apparently allowing her socially-disconnected son to wander the city alone talking to strangers. Fortunately, every single person in New York City named Black turns out to be a paragon of patience and virtue, all of whom are just unbearably touched by Oskar’s quixotic quest for understanding.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close assembles an all-star cast in the service of this nonsense. Seen in flashbacks, the character of Oskar’s father tests the very limits of Tom Hanks’s “likable everyman” persona: his goodness starts to seem both intolerable and vaguely maniacal. Bullock actually gives the better performance as Oskar’s depressed, slightly estranged mother, at least until the ridiculous machinations of the plot’s third-act twist make her, too, seem like an unhinged parental psychopath. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright portray two of the first—and most important—of the random people Oskar encounters: both are such good actors that I am growing increasingly tired of seeing them lend their weight to projects so unworthy of them.
Also lending his immeasurable gravitas to this treacly gruel is Max Von Sydow, Oscar-nominated here as The Renter, the mute old man who lives with Oskar’s grandmother and briefly accompanies Oskar on his journey. Von Sydow has one of the greatest, most interesting faces ever put on film, and he is indeed fine as this supposedly mysterious figure—though if you haven’t figured out who he is before he even appears on-screen, you’ve probably never seen a movie before.
But this perfectly serviceable cast works in service of a perfectly atrocious movie, one that thinks it can knit together the wounds of 9/11 by uniting the entire city around a strange little boy. If the movie had felt a bit more like a fairy tale, its contrivances and emotional coercions might have been forgivable—its implausibilities are, after all, no more or less likely than those of the infinitely-better Hugo or War Horse—but neither the crassly insipid screenplay by Eric Roth (Forest Gump) nor Stephen Daldry’s ponderously stylized direction leaves any room for magic or wonder. Every point is hammered home with an insultingly blunt lack of subtlety, and every emotion is asked for by name and demanded as if by gunpoint. (Having Oskar narrate the entire film is a disastrous choice: the character would be unbearable anyway, but his constant voice-over quickly snuffs out any feelings of sympathy we might otherwise have felt.)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not offer a single real insight, or earn a single honest reaction: despite its subject matter, and despite its constant and desperate solicitation of emotion, it manages to be neither heartbreaking nor heartwarming. I have heard it called “well-intentioned,” but I think even that is generous. Yes, you can wring real feelings out of your audience by punctuating your phoniness with images of airplanes crashing into the towers—or people falling from them—but it is offensively vulgar to do so without having anything else to offer but sentimentality and schmaltz. Excrementally lousy and unconscionably crass, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close strikes me as nothing more than a cynical attempt to parlay an overwhelming event into an overwrought, artificially manipulative confection.