Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


9/11 Through the Eyes of a Child

Main Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow

Director: Stephen Daldry

Even in a world saturated with information and images courtesy of a 24-hour news cycle, I don’t think anyone who wasn’t in New York City on September 11, 2001 can really understand what it was like when those planes hit the World Trade Center.  We see the pictures, hear the words, read the statistics, but it still isn’t quite real.  As time passes and wounds begin to heal, Hollywood is going to release more and more movies focusing on that day and its aftermath, making sure that nobody forgets the experiences of victims and survivors.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close brings us 9/11 through the eyes of a child who lost a parent.

Tom Hanks stars as Thomas Schell, husband of Linda (Sandra Bullock) and father of Oskar (Thomas Horn).  Thomas was in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and we enter the lives of Oskar and Linda as they try and cope with his death.  Through flashback we see Thomas interacting with Oskar, playing games, making up scavenger hunts and other adventures for his quirky son.  Oskar loved his father unreservedly and is finding it impossible to reconcile the events leading to and the fact of his death.  He finds a key in Thomas’ closet and is sure that it’s a clue, one last adventure that his father meant him to take.

Oskar’s adventure, his search for the lock that fits that key, takes him all over the city.  He faces some longstanding fears (like bridges), meets a lot of interesting people and connects with the strange, mute man who rents a room from his grandmother across the street.  We spend a lot of time with Oskar.  A lot of time.  Oskar freely admits that he isn’t quite like his peers, and it’s clear that he is not.  Thomas’ adventures were in large part designed to encourage Oskar to interact with people – something he does not do with ease, tact or grace.  Though the term Asperger’s is mentioned, it isn’t clear that there is any real diagnosis.  But this is definitely a child with many anxieties, quirks and in need of a lot of patience from the adults in his life.

Young Thomas Horn does a nice job with Oskar.  He makes Oskar difficult and frustrating and heartbreaking.  What he cannot do, however, is make Oskar a character with whom we want to spend each and every scene.  Honestly, Oskar is annoying, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has far too much Oskar for it to be as affecting as it should be given the talent of the cast and the premise of the story.  Hanks, Bullock and Max von Sydow as the renter all give good performances, helping underscore the fear and confusion of not only this little boy, but a whole nation that simply cannot cope with the senselessness of those thousands of deaths.  But they can’t overcome the obstacle that is Oskar.

We don’t really understand Oskar, his fears and quirks and socially unacceptable behavior.  We don’t really quite understand the adventures upon which he embarked with his father; we don’t understand his cruelty to his grieving mother.  I suspect on paper he came across as far more sympathetic, lost and confused.  On screen he far too often comes across as a child who needs to learn some respect, some self-control and some empathy for others.  As hard as it is to admit, I simply didn’t much like this child.  As a result, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close lost a lot of its punch.

Maybe it’s still too soon to watch the naked pain that followed 9/11; maybe people still need to have it filtered through the unconventional eyes of an unconventional child.  But I don’t think so.  I think Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a good faith effort to adapt a difficult book for the screen that ended up making the tragedies suffered by the survivors of that day feel more remote rather than less.  An unfortunate miss – 2 stars out of 5.

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