WASHINGTON – Gazing at the smoke of 9/11, all anyone could say was that it was like “something out of a movie.” And yet, movies could never capture an event so tragic.
Case in point: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” based on the 2005 book by Jonathan S. Foer and adapted by “Forrest Gump” and “Benjamin Button” screenwriter Eric Roth.
It’s a fascinating premise: 9-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a gifted kid with borderline Aspergers, grieves the 9/11 death of his father (Tom Hanks) by exploring a tall tale of New York’s mythical “sixth borough.” He sets off across the city, meeting people from all walks of life, in search of the lock that fits a mysterious key from his dad’s closet.
Along the way, Oskar grows apart from his mother (Sandra Bullock) and befriends a mute old man (Max von Sydow), who must talk via notepad and messages written on his palms.
Hanks and Bullock are solid as expected, but the movie belongs to von Sydow, whose Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor joins Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (“The Artist“) in a year of “silent” nominations. Sadly, it’s just the second nomination in his prolific career, from a chess match against Death in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957), to the title character in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973), to the founder of pre-crime in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002).
Despite a talented cast, proven writer and intriguing premise, the film is poorly executed, especially the voiceover narration. When done well, narration can really elevate a film, from “Double Indemnity” (1944) to “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Unfortunately here, it’s read way too melodramatically by the novice child actor, whose career was launched by winning Kids Week on “Jeopardy!” While Horn is impressive in some of the more emotional scenes, I could never quite latch onto him to carry me through the movie, leaving me yearning for Hanks’ other movie son.
The blame falls less on the kid than it does director Stephen Daldry, who ends a streak of Best Director nominations for “Billy Elliot” (2000), “The Hours” (2002) and “The Reader” (2008). While the lattermost delicately handled the Holocaust, the tone of “Extremely Loud” feels exploitative, recalling the audience’s fresh memories of what Oskar calls “The Worst Day.” The filmmakers even felt the need to cut a new trailer claiming the film, “Is not about 9/11. It’s about the day after.”
I tried giving the film the benefit of the doubt, but felt it suffered the same fate as Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006). Only one fiction feature film has ever worked, “United 93” (2006), because director Paul Greengrass plays it straight, telling a realistic tale of the day’s true act of heroism. If you’re looking for the best 9/11 movies, check out the international short-film collection “September 11″ (2002), including a powerful short directed by Sean Penn and starring Ernest Borgnine.
Trust me, I’m not hating on the movie because it’s a downer. Plenty of great movies have been downers, from “Midnight Cowboy” to “Requiem for a Dream.” It’s how the depressing subject is handled that makes a film successful or not. “Extremely Loud” fancies itself to be way more profound than it actually is, with predictable twists and the gall to name its protagonist “Oscar.” That’s like Alan Jackson naming his tribute song, “Where Were You When the Grammy Stopped Turning?” How it got nominated for Best Picture, I’ll never know.
If you’re an admitted sucker for the sentimental, you may love it — and there’s nothing wrong with that. The folks at People Magazine called it the Best Movie of the Year. But with such powerful subject matter and ten years of hindsight, I couldn’t help but think the movie could have been so much more. A better title would have been: “Extremely Promising and Incredibly Disappointing.”
The public gives it a 6.3 on IMDb. The critics give it a 46 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Calling it from both sides of The Film Spectrum, I’m Jason Fraley, giving it 2 1/2 stars.
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