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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
Movie Reviews

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

An adaptation that represents the best type of sentimentalism there is; the aim is not to make you cry but to actually tell a story that will resonate emotionally.

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Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close represents the best type of sentimentalism there is, in which the aim is not to make you cry but to actually tell a story that will resonate emotionally. It’s not a fairy tale, a fable, or a parable; it’s simply a film that works more on the heart than it does the brain. I don’t always appreciate narrative contrivances, but in this case, I have to admire Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth – and, of course, Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the novel on which the film is based – for their willingness to be so bold and uncompromising in their vision. They certainly deserve credit for respectfully incorporating the events of September 11, 2001 into the story. It was an awfully big risk for them to take, and they pulled it off. That’s because 9/11 isn’t the main focus. It’s merely the backdrop.

The film freely goes back and forth through time, telling the story of a ten-year-old boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who doubles as the narrator. He mentions at one point that he was tested for Asperger’s syndrome, although the results were inconclusive. Whatever condition he does or does not have, it’s obvious his mind is wired differently. He’s a catalogue of obscure facts and figures that are narrowly focused. He’s highly neurotic, his list of phobias ranging from tall buildings to bridges to loud noises to things made of concrete. He has a hard time approaching strangers and speaking to them directly. He mentally counts his own lies. The only person he could communicate with was his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who aspired to be a scientist but ended up becoming a jeweler. He turned every situation into an archeological and historical exploration. Well aware of Oskar’s difficulties, he would stipulate that things were not worth doing if they were easy.

After Thomas’ death on 9/11 (he was in one of the towers of the World Trade Center), Oskar is thrown for a loop. His is a world of logic, organization, and structure, and yet nothing about his father’s death makes sense – not even his funeral, in which an empty coffin was buried in a cemetery. He almost never refers to the day by its date; mostly, he calls it The Awful Day, which is as good a name for it as any. He’s left with his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), and although she’s a loving woman, the two simply can’t communicate. The situation is made harder because, naturally, she too is grieving Thomas’ loss. Even after a year, things just aren’t coming together. How can he come to terms with this? Perhaps the answer lies in his father’s closet, which has been left untouched and which Oskar hasn’t entered since The Awful Day. He accidentally knocks over a vase, in which contains a tiny manila envelope with the word “black” written on it. Within the envelope is a key.

Obviously, the key fits into a lock. But which lock? And what does “black” mean? Oskar correctly assumes that it’s actually a person’s family name. With the help of his apartment building’s security guard (John Goodman), with whom he trades foul-mouthed insults, Oskar is given access to several New York City phone books. He systematically determines that there are over 400 people in the area with the name Black. He then calculates the time it will take him to meet them all, factoring in his walking speed, the hours he searches on any given day, and the average time it will take to talk to them (around two minutes or so). Once he begins his journey, using a tambourine as a way to keep him calm, he quickly realizes that no one is on the same schedule he’s on. Many want to tell him their life story. Others simply don’t care. In any case, he takes a picture as a record of the meeting.

Most of the people he meets are not examined in depth, which is fair enough given the amount of time it would take. There are, however, two notable exceptions. One is a man whose name isn’t even Black. In fact, his name isn’t given at all. He’s a reclusive, mysterious old man from Germany (Max von Sydow), who rents an apartment from Oskar’s grandmother, also a German immigrant (Zoe Caldwell). The old man, known only as The Renter, has been so psychologically scarred that he can no longer speak. He writes longer sentences in a notebook; for simple answers, he lifts his hands, one palm tattooed with the word “yes” and the other with “no.” He joins Oskar in an effort to help him, despite the boy’s rigid rules. The other person is Abby Black (Viola Davis). I will refrain from describing their first meeting, for I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot. I will say that, like much of the movie, the circumstances aren’t very likely.

But then again, that’s not the way melodrama works. The intention is to provoke an emotional reaction, not to have you analyze the logistics of a situation. And provoke a reaction it did; by the end of the film, I was clutching a tear-stained tissue. I allowed myself to be so vulnerable because it was obvious that a story was being told. Had Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close been just a strung-together series of dramatic situations, had there been no context, it would only be manipulation. Having said this, I anticipate a divisive reaction, with some audiences finding it incredibly touching and others finding it unbearably cloying. Some may even think it’s in poor taste. A negative reaction is understandable, although I hope you see your way to giving the film a chance. Although it works entirely in sentiment, its plot is engaging and the characters are compelling.

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12/25/2011

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PG-13

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Warner Bros. Pictures

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi