I’m always curious to see any movie that involves 9/11. Movies about that tragic day raise interesting questions and provoke conversation.
By Noah Gittell
I’m always curious to see any movie that involves 9/11. Movies about that tragic day raise interesting questions and provoke conversation. The way a given filmmaker chooses to address such a controversial and emotionally poignant topic can speak volumes about where we are as a nation in response to that tragedy. Questions and controversy arose when the first few mainstream 9/11 films were released. Was “United 93” too soon? Was “Farenheit 9/11” overly politicized? What would master of controversy Oliver Stone do with “World Trade Center”?
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” sidesteps these questions by telling a fairly straightforward tale of grief, but the filmmakers make the cardinal sin of storytelling, far worse than being insensitive or controversial: the movie is kind of boring.
Adapted from the best-selling novel by wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud” perceives post-9/11 America as a country without a father, suddenly cast adrift into a new and dangerous world. Nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, a wunderkind himself, who was discovered on “Jeopardy! Kids Week”) loses his father on 9/11 and, upon discovering a mysterious key among his late father’s things, sets out to discover what lock it fits. Just in case it wasn’t clear that his mysterious expedition was a way for him to hold onto a relationship with his father, don’t worry – he tells us.
Lucky for all of us that his journey takes him on short visits to some of America’s finest character actors. Viola Davis, Max Von Sydow, and Jeffrey Wright each play key roles in Oskar’s journey, and the film lights up when each of them is on screen.
While the parade of character actors keeps the film watchable, Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks barely register as Oskar’s grieving mother and late father. In a way, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is two movies fighting for prominence. Bullock and Hanks star in a big, Hollywood melodrama about a tragedy that shocked a nation, and they never hit an unexpected note. Their sections of the film play like an Academy Award paint-by-numbers. Take two bankable Hollywood stars, add an Oscar-nominated director (Stephen Daldry) and an Oscar-winning screenwriter, season with a dash of precocious child, and finally mix in a national tragedy. This is a recipe intended to produce Oscar gold, but it’s a contrivance that is impossible to ignore.
You may have noticed that I have withheld any criticism of the lead actor, the young Thomas Horn, who is in nearly every scene and is expected to carry the film. He’s not up to the challenge, and I don’t know a child actor who is. Beyond his intense grief, Oskar has problems interacting with the outside world, and it is implied that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome.
As an actor, Horn is fine when working alongside an actor of Von Sydow’s ability, for example, but you can count on one hand the number of films successfully carried by a child in the sole lead role. “Extremely Loud” comes admirably close but, in the end, is no exception to this rule. Thomas Horn may be a tremendous actor, but when a film asks him to do what Russell Crowe earned an Oscar for in “A Beautiful Mind,” it is not a recipe for success.
In this way, it may be a milestone that a 9/11 movie has come and gone without a whiff of political criticism. Some critics have pointed out the insensitivity of the filmmakers in using 9/11 imagery as a short-hand to an emotional reaction in the audience, as opposed to an earned reaction through character and plot development. But at its essence, this is a criticism of the filmmaker’s methodology, not of their sensitivity or political motives.
These critics, which I count myself among, are saying that “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is just not a very good film. This may indicate that we have taken a small step forward in our national grieving process over 9/11, along with a tiny step backward for the creative process.
Starting with this review the columnist rates each film. He gives “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” a “Put it on your queue”. Top rating is “Rush to the theater”, the lowest is “Skip it all together”.