About ten minutes after the end of maudlin 9/11 drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I was standing outside the theater, feeling the tears drying on my face and the crying jags subside, and I got angry. I asked my friend who I now feel guilty for bringing along, “Why in the world was it necessary to make this movie?” You can ask that question about all sorts of terrible movies, and usually the answer is “to make money.” The Transformers franchise and just about every Adam Sandler vehicle exist simply as methods to earn cash, to make profits, to please shareholders of multinational conglomerates. But movies like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close have loftier goals. Sure, everyone involved is making money and wants to make as much as possible, but directors like Stephen Daldry and producers like Scott Rudin value prestige and artistic excellence as much if not more than their bank accounts. Unfortunately and bizarrely, none of these laudable goals are met or even visible in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which is a cruel and blunt assault on the audience’s basest emotions. I didn’t think I would ever see a movie more offensive than Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s cynically manipulative slapstick comedy about the Holocaust. But I have.
The plot is admittedly somewhat ingenious. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a precocious, oddly articulate 9-year-old boy who probably has Asperger’s Syndrome, a kind of autism. His father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11; he was on the 106th floor of one of the towers and probably was one of the jumpers. Oskar’s mother Linda (Sandra Bullock, as good as she’s ever been) is beside herself with grief and depression. About a year after Thomas’s death, Oskar is rummaging through his father’s closet and finds a key in an envelope at the bottom of a vase; on the envelope is written “Black.” Believing that this is a message from his father, part of one the elaborate adventures of investigation that the two shared, Oskar is determined to find what the key opens. This involves talking to everyone with the last name Black in New York City and trying hundreds and hundreds of locks. It is only through this quest that this analytical, emotionally destroyed little boy can find meaning in what happened on “the worst day.” Eventually, Oskar is joined by the mute old man (Max Von Sydow, moving and Chaplinesque) renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother.
Since it is clear to the old man and to the audience that this quest is going nowhere, watching Oskar run around the city, desperately searching for a grand meaning to 9/11 seemed sadistic to me. That Oskar is at times adorable, but is also at times dreadfully mean, makes this even more problematic and discomfiting. But the biggest problem is how Daldry zeroes in the grief of this boy and his poor mother; I felt as if I was a finger rooting around in a gaping wound. At one point, the old man tells Oskar – via his notepad – to stop playing the answering machine messages Thomas left while the tower was burning. Stop. He can’t take it anymore. The entire audience is crying, and I wanted to scream at the screen just what the old man had written.
Extremely Loud is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, which was published four years after the September 11th attacks. In addition to a great deal of praise, it earned a great deal of criticism similar to what the film has: that it was sentimental and obvious and attempted to create false and unbelievable profundity. I didn’t read the book; my experience of 9/11 and its aftermath was traumatic enough that descriptions or images of the events sent me into a tizzy of grief and anxiety. However, it took me ten years to write about it, but I have. I can listen to Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant album The Rising now without crying. But I still cannot bear to be asked, “Oh, you lived in New York then? What was it like?” It was awful. Awful. Why any filmmaker would want to berate an audience with this awfulness or why anyone would want to pay $12 to experience this awfulness is simply beyond my comprehension.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by Eric Roth
Starring Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow
Opens January 20 in San Diego
At your local multiplex