23 February 2012


Aside from the fact that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is basically this year's The Blind Side (a Best Picture nominee that doesn't really deserve to be, and also happens to star Sandra Bullock), it bears many similarities to its fellow nominees. It's unerringly sentimental, like War Horse. It features a character who refuses to talk, like The Artist. It's about the unknowable motivations of a lost loved one, like The Descendants, but also like Hugo, with which it even has the inheritance of a mysterious key in common.

Divorced from all of this Oscar hullabaloo, as this adaptation of Jonathan Safran-Foer's novel arguably should have been, the plot of the film follows Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old boy with an undiagnosed social disorder, whose father is killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. A year after this Worst Day, as Oskar calls it, he explores his dad's effects and finds an envelope marked "Black". Inside the envelope is a key, and the quest to discover what it unlocks, and to make sense of his father's final mystery, takes Oskar all over New York.

So, it can't help that a film that follows a kid called Oskar is so overtly chasing after Oscars itself. It's a curious position, being in the minority of reviewers that don't ardently dislike a Best Picture nominee. It's unfortunate that so much of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is inextricable from its prestige pic status, and the sheer obviousness of the studio's intentions for this as a big awards contender, because having read the novel it's based on, it's very clearly suited to being a more independently spirited film. Then again, with the necessity of shooting in New York, perhaps only a big, schmaltzy contender would do, for financiers.

The footage of those attacks on the World Trade Center have almost become a text in itself- nowadays, moments in modern history seem to be viewed by everybody, thanks to the proliferation of rolling news and social media. That makes portrayals of the event and its aftermath a topic of particular sensitivity, which could be why so many reviewers have responded negatively to this film. Most of the problems seem to be with Thomas Horn's portrayal of Oskar, as an irritant to the same reviewers who have lionised far more unlikeable characters in the past.

Oskar, on the page and on the screen, is incapable of deferring satisfaction and adapting to social situations, because of his disorder. This can be irritating, but it's not like he's Anakin fucking Skywalker- there's very clearly a reason for the way in which he gets upset at seemingly small things and yet acts bluntly towards others, and it's an interesting way in which to approach an atrocity that even well-adapted adults might still have trouble wrapping their heads around. Horn, considering the fact that he isn't an actor, acquits himself extraordinarily well. He's unlikeable, perhaps, but not unbelievable.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, pushed forward in the marketing on account of their awards prestige, don't feature in the film a lot, although each are very good when we do see them. Pretty much the only other main character in the film is a mute man who lodges with Oskar's grandmother, played by Max von Sydow. His backstory, and that of the grandmother, is significantly reduced from the novel, but he still has a lot of quiet presence in the film's more loudly sentimental moments. Repeated callbacks to Hanks leaping to his death are a little excessive, and it's the power of the quieter moments where the film really works.

Needless to say, it doesn't always work, all of the time, and the exact mistakes in adapting a very interesting book into a less interesting film are never more apparent than when you've read the book as well. When I read Safran-Foer's novel, it comes down to the story, the characters and the dialogue. In a film, you also have to consider the score, the editing, the cinematography, the actors who portray those characters, and so on. It's not that these things are poorly done in Daldry's movie- just that the combination of these things with a problematic story has proven emotionally abrasive to some viewers.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn't hold a candle to We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shame, Young Adult, or many of the other popular "snubs" in this year's Best Picture race, but perhaps I'm naive enough to believe that the problems with it are industrial, and centred more around the studio's desire for an awards contender than around creative mistakes. I maintain that Thomas Horn and Max von Sydow both give excellent performances, which are worth watching, but if I were to recommend it to anyone, it would be people who have already read the book, and spent some time with that confused little boy's voice before being challenged with it by an alternative version.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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