"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close": It Will Always Be 'Too Soon' for a 9/11 Movie

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jan. 18, 2012

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Boy blunder: Thomas Horne's Oskar is one of the most obnoxious movie characters of all time.

Photo by PW Staff

How soon is “too soon?”

Is 10 years long enough to wait around for the inevitable, “prestigious” exploitation of Sept. 11, 2001? After all, we’ve recently witnessed Edward from Twilight being struck down in the prime of puppy love by a hijacked jet in 2010’s reportedly appalling teen romance Remember Me. (I heard about the ending in advance so I stayed far away.)

Historical tragedies are used by filmmakers all the time—particularly during awards season. Sometimes responsibly, but more often not. It’s nothing new.

Yet, I think what keeps 9/11 off-limits for most of us is that the day was such a visceral, visual experience. It was all on TV, replayed incessantly from start to horrific finish, and so I feel like everybody has their own deeply personal associations with those images. They’re sacred and private, at least for those of us who watched them over and over again for that entire, awful day.

So when I see Sandra Bullock, staring out a skyscraper window at the smoldering towers, leaning into camera for an over-orchestrated, glycerine-tear-eyed closeup, I’m no longer thinking about the movie I’m supposed to be watching. I’m wondering why that sanctimonious twat from The Blind Side needs to intrude on my awful memories just to try and win another Oscar.

Or when I see Tom Hanks plummeting from the World Trade Center directly into the camera lens, I’m wondering if the star of my beloved Bachelor Party has taken leave of his goddamn senses.

Of course, other filmmakers have attempted to tackle 9/11. But Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center were at least shrewd enough to stick with spartan, just-the-facts recitations of narrowly focused true stories.

What makes Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which was adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely lambasted bestseller, so presumptuous and sickening is that it tries to transform 9/11 into a fable—which probably doesn’t even work on paper—but clangs even more disgustingly when real-life nightmare footage is grafted onto such a fanciful lark.

Foer’s annoying literary conceit is that 9/11 turned us all into a nation of lost children, and so it goes that we must follow 9-year-old Oskar (his name a hint as to the picture’s ultimate goal) who lands somewhere on the Aspergers spectrum and also lost his father on that miserable September morning. Or, as Oskar calls it: “The Worst Day.”

Suffering from movie-cute aversions to public transportation and hyper-edited panic attacks, Oskar isn’t a character so much as he is an assemblage of quirks somebody mistook for adorable, a precocious proto-hipster who’ll presumably be writing for McSweeney’s before his 13th birthday. I don’t think it’s young actor Thomas Horn’s fault that this is one of the most gratingly obnoxious movie characters I have ever been trapped in a dark room with. I just assume he was directed that way.

As it turns out, a stray key is discovered amidst his dead father’s belongings, stuck in an envelope with the word “Black” scribbled on the front. A year after the attacks, our still grief-stricken Oskar sets out to find all 472 people named “Black” in the New York City telephone book, with a mysteriously mute lodger played by Max Von Sydow tagging along for the adventure.

The reasons for Von Sydow’s refusal to speak are deliberately obscure—though there’s mention about the bombing of Dresden, because one atrocity obviously just wasn’t enough for a film like this. Credit the always-brilliant Von Sydow for finding a way to give a decent performance, even though he’s stuck waving around the words “YES” and “NO,” tattooed on the palms of his hands.

On what planet is this picture supposed to take place, and how do I leave?

I don’t want to give anything away, but Oskar’s journey appears intended to teach us all about how—in the immortal words of REM—everybody hurts. Some of the Blacks he meets are actually black, like Viola Davis, who, between this and The Help , has now cornered the market on suffering elegantly in films I personally find despicable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is so ghastly at a conceptual level, it’s almost easy to overlook the terrible direction by Stephen Daldry—an all-around wretched filmmaker who receives Academy Award nominations on a semiannual basis for transforming dense, well-regarded books like The Hours and The Reader into star-studded, moribund features that nobody would ever dare sit through a second time.

Flutter-cutting his way through a labyrinthine flashback structure, pointlessly prolonging the revelation of crucial information like he’s conducting a striptease, Daldry staggers through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as if drunk on his own cleverness. There’s not a shot in the picture that isn’t fraught with some sort of cutesy camera or editing gimmick. The movie has no grounding in reality, and thus has no right to use these images.

It will always be too soon for shit like this.

Grade: D-

Director: Stephen Daldry

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1. tman1m said... on Feb 8, 2012 at 12:48PM

“You wouldn't be the first critic to argue that this film's (and book's) protagonist is on the edge between precociousnes and obnoxiousness, but your smug/superficial review (which appears to reveal you have not read the book) reads as overly harsh and especially hostile. Are we to assume that that 9/11 is "too personal" for any artist to try to speak to or intepret those events and how we were and are affected? Is it really a stretch to see how a family's story could be bookended by this tragedy and the ones that occurred in WWII? I notice you didn't mention "Reign Over Me," but I thought that film was quite effective in filtering the horrible events of that day through its effects on a particular family. Your venom appears colored by your general opinion of the director (sorry, but can't agree with your appraisal of The Reader either). I agree that this film had to walk a thin line between empathy and outright bathos, but I think it did so successfully, given the challenging premise.”

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