Talking in Circles: ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

“It doesn’t make sense.”—Oskar Schell

A quiet paen to personal discovery that masquerades as a quixotic journey into the wasteland of grief, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close makes a valiant attempt to understand catastrophe and loss but never manages to truly come to grips with it. This is a film in which the shadow of 9/11 is supposed to always be there, even though the smoking towers are only glimpsed a few times, once from a great distance and otherwise through televised news segments. But the horror of that day is sieved through too many filters and ends up as almost an abstraction.

The central relationship here is that between the nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, a true discovery) and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks, rivetingly genial, if such a thing is possible), who died in the World Trade Center. The film opens on a rich banquet of father-son playfulness, with the always game Thomas leading his odd, puzzle-obsessed, borderline-genius son on a series of curious quests. Like most parents, Thomas knows that one of the great joys of having children is selling them on fanciful untruths, and so he has Oskar believing that there was once a sixth borough of New York, now missing.

Oskar embarks on one “Reconnaissance Expedition” after another to prove the existence of this lost land. Oskar is so enmeshed in these make-believe games, with their random clues that send him scouring over Manhattan with metal detector and notebook like some grade-school explorer, that he’s oblivious to Thomas’s real goal: to figure out ways to get his nervous, frightened son out into the great wide world.

It makes a kind of sense, then, that after Thomas is lost in when the towers fall, that Oskar would empty his sadness into a new citywide hunt. Oskar is unable to truly comprehend the loss; a great early scene has him erupting at Thomas’s funeral over the illogic of burying an empty casket. After finding in Thomas’s closet a small envelope with the word “Black” written on it, and a key inside, Oskar decides that this must be a clue to the greatest Reconnaissance Expedition of all time. With the inventiveness and mind-boggling dedication of the gifted child, Oskar turns his life into a mission to find who Black is, how they knew his father, and what lock the key would open.

Oskar’s hunt is a great and elaborately imagined Rube Goldberg kind of thing, with maps and minutely broken-down lists, that takes him across the width and breadth of New York. He has supplies and a schedule and an unerring sense that there is a mystery to be solved. Along the way, he picks up a co-searcher. Known only as The Renter (Max von Sydow), Oskar’s assistant is an old man living in his grandmother’s apartment across the street who, possibly because of an old wartime trauma, refuses to talk. He writes notes in a little notebook, or holds up his palms, with “No” written on one, and “Yes” on the other. It being von Sydow, there is a river of language communicated through each eyebrow-tweak, sigh, and shrug. As beautiful as von Sydow’s performance is, though, it’s in the service of a character who is highly problematic, to say the least.

Oskar’s oddities and quasi-autistic blindness to the needs of others ring true, the casual cruelties he metes out from his cosseted mini-universe of gameplaying (apparently completely unencumbered by encounters with any other children) to his suffering mother (Sandra Bullock) and his building’s put-upon doorman (a wasted John Goodman) feel correct for this kind of youthful autodidact. But while Horn (himself a precocious non-actor discovered after appearing on Jeopardy!) makes Oskar make sense, it’s hard to swallow The Reader’s all-too-convenient appearance in his life-quest. This is a kid, after all, who’s so panicked by everyday outdoor life that he carries a tambourine with him for comfort – the sound soothes his motorhead nerves. Pairing him with a silent guardian in black as they traipse through the boroughs brings the film to near-critical symbolic overload. Yes, they both have difficulties communicating but perhaps they can hear each other in ways nobody else can; understood.

The screenplay is by Eric Roth, from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. As Liev Schreiber’s hardworking but unsuccessful adaptation of Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated proved, Foer’s writing is a knotty challenge for filmmakers. There is an essential unreality to Foer’s digressive fiction, with all its linguistic playfulness and tight-knotted constructions, that makes it a tonal nightmare when transferred into the bright reality of mainstream cinema. Director Stephan Daldry would initially seem like the right guy to take on such a challenge. WithThe Reader and The Hours, Daldry took tricky novels about sadness, guilt, and memory – themes that certainly resonate in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – and turned them into wracking, wrenching films grounded by dark, sharp-edged performances.

But Daldry’s take on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn’t do Foer justice. This was always going to be a problematic kind of film, its playful and whimsical asides always threatening to undermine the import of the tragedy behind it all. Daldry miffs it almost from the start, overusing Horn’s too-emphatic, busy voiceovers that further distance the viewer from an already-fractured narrative. The film’s tone is hard to gauge, with Chris Menges’s postcard-bright, almost romantic-comedy-styled cinematography not working at all for the interiorized peculiarities of Oskar’s world. (This is the rare DVD release where more special features, particularly on how the filmmakers viewed the novel and their take on it, would be helpful. The single feature on this disc is a mostly pointless short bit on the discovery of Horn as an actor.)

Foer’s writing seems to emphasize the role of Oskar’s grimly determined sense of play as a coping mechanism against unimaginable loss. Roth and Daldry, though, seem to be pushing for therapeutic relief instead of an offbeat view of tragedy. The result, sprinkled with some nice moments as it is, threatens to make the momentous trite.

RATING 5 / 10