Because the film is not as sanctimoniously grating as the trailers promised, I didn’t hate director Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as much as I thought I would — or admittedly, as much as I wanted. Overall, the story is just too toothless to garner any real reaction. Like Daldry’s two previous films, the execrable “The Reader” and “The Hours” (though I loved 2000’s “Billy Elliot), “Extremely Loud” might be a gushing fountain of left-wing self-importance, but it’s also a completely forgettable one.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) lost his beloved father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), in the World Trade Center on what Oskar calls “the worst day,” September 11, 2001. The body was never recovered, but what really haunts Oskar are the increasingly despairing messages his father left on the family’s answering machine that day as his situation became more and more hopeless. For reasons we don’t fully understand until the end, Oskar has never played these messages for his seemingly inconsolable mother (Sandra Bullock), but he tortures himself by listening to them again and again.
In flashbacks that play throughout, we learn that father and son bonded through a number of obnoxiously precious hobbies, including scavenger hunts. Oskar is a very bright and mature child, and Thomas continually challenged his son with these fantasy-driven hunts in the hopes they would help the boy overcome his many fears and phobias.
After his father’s death, Oskar comes across a key in Thomas’s closet with only one clue as to what it might unlock: the name “Black.” Thinking this might have been part of a scavenger hunt his father planned but never had the opportunity to execute, Oskar decides to methodically visit everyone named Black in New York’s five boroughs. This ends up being the journey Thomas always wanted for his son, the one that helps the boy to come out of his…Schell.
Get it? Get it?
“Schell” is Oskar’s last name.
The film’s biggest problem is that, to put it bluntly, it exploits 9/11. Thomas could’ve died just as easily in a plane crash or boat accident without a single element of the story having to change. For Daldry (working off a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer) to use one of the biggest crimes ever committed against this country as a “device” is truly repulsive and a symptom of a Hollywood bubble so impenetrable that a group of people with the power to make a multi-million dollar film actually thought it was okay to say 9/11 is all about …. me.
Because “all about me” is the film’s ultimate message. At one point Bullock’s character says to Oskar, “I don’t know why that man flew a plane into a building,” which of course is a bald-faced lie. We all know why that plane was flown into the World trade Center, but that’s not something Hollywood wants to talk about because to them 9/11 isn’t about America or our way of life or that we live in a country worth fighting and dying for.
According to Daldry and company, what 9/11 is about, though, is the opportunity for a nine-year-old “amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist” to trot off on a narcissistic journey of self-discovery while banging his precious tambourine and providing his precious voice over and meeting all the precious people in the precious city of New York. And in the film’s most racially patronizing scene, meeting a group of precious Christians who are of course, Black.
At no time are any of Oskar’s preconceived notions about how the world works ever challenged — including his pacifism, and at no time is the idea of service to country or, perhaps, taking the time to send care packages to the men and women avenging a father’s death ever explored.
The performances aren’t even very good. Horn is okay as Oskar, but the kid never feels real. Bullock provides the story’s only affecting moments, but Mom is a one-note character. Even before her husband dies, she’s mousy and dour to a point where she doesn’t seem all that much different after. Hanks does his best, but his every scene simply screams I’M THE GREATEST DAD IN THE WORLD AND ARE YOU EVER GOING TO MISS ME!
Then there’s poor Max Von Sydow, who plays a man so beaten by tragedy he decides to stop speaking. Oh, and he has a secret, because the cinematically-damaged always do.
Hollywood just doesn’t have the courage, maturity, or selflessness to examine 9/11 and its subsequent wars with anything approaching moral literacy. Which is why we would all be much better off if they would just ignore it.