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'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' review: An awful book becomes even worse for some new reasons

  • "I loved you in 'Big.'"
"I loved you in 'Big.'"
January 19, 2012|By Matt Pais | RedEye movie critic

0.5 stars (out of four)

When people jumped from the burning towers of the World Trade Center, no pretty piano music accompanied their fall.

Yes, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the most insulting 9/11-related movie since Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” begins with a man falling slowly, gracefully, as Alexandre Desplat’s score twinkles. What the man is falling from is not visible. With this, director Stephen Daldry, who last exploited the Holocaust as the painful context for an unrelated story in “The Reader,” begins his attempt to pull something disturbingly close to poetic beauty out of horror.

The rest of the movie, scripted by Eric Roth (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) from Jonathan Safran Foer’s excruciatingly quirky novel, likewise fails to confront real-life tragedy through unvarnished truth. That is, as opposed to the emotionally manipulative goo that drips from the mouths of people trying to win awards.

As nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) searches for a lock to match a key left behind by his dad (Tom Hanks), killed a year earlier on 9/11, Oskar does see that other people in the world suffer. However, that’s not much of a lesson for a grieving boy who makes no firm connections with the many people with the last name “Black” whom he meets while searching for the lock. (Oskar finds the key in an envelope labeled “Black,” which explains why he looks these people up.)

Movies should absolutely try to help us process and understand our personal and collective traumas, and perhaps there is potential to explore how incomprehensible violence looks through the eyes of someone young enough to still be fascinated by many of the world’s unknowns. Regardless, where Foer at least emphasized Oskar’s vivid imagination as his way to distract himself from his feelings, Daldry and Roth include only a brief instance of this, in meaningless voiceover.

And anyone who’s read the book will notice the absence of letters written by Oskar’s grandparents that were so impossible to visualize the filmmakers totally left them out of the movie. Except that this omission means anyone who hasn’t read the novel will be baffled by a totally under-examined relationship between Oskar and his grandparents.

“Extremely Loud” pastes new, phony scenes on its ending and incorporates its title in a manner that Foer had the good sense to avoid. The film creates a journey that could have no logically satisfying conclusion and then provides both unsatisfying resolution and stapled-on lessons that come out of nowhere.

As Oskar’s mom, Sandra Bullock creates only melodrama, and Jeffrey Wright can’t be blamed for his role in a scene featuring a major confession from Oskar that makes no sense in terms of who he’s confessing to. (P.S. Anyone who thinks the presence of such high-caliber actors indicates quality should refer to the recent star-studded trash pile known as “New Year’s Eve.”)

This would all be inept storytelling as an ordinary drama. As a confrontation of post-9/11 fear and loss, it’s downright inexcusable. Even the poster makes no sense. Attempting to show a child in shock, it looks more like a kid covering his face to impersonate Stefon holding back a laugh on “Saturday Night Live.” The joke’s on us.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U @mattpais

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