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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

January 24, 2012
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel followed a similar path to his first, Everything Is Illuminated, but instead of rediscovering the Shoah, his protagonist spends his time trying to make sense of the great scar on our own national consciousness. Unfortunately, it fell somewhat short, and his reliance on style over substance led the book to come off a bit treacly and overly sentimental. Still, it came together in the wake of a tragedy that its author was still trying to put together himself. The makers of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have no such excuse.

Young Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) lives in Manhattan. He’s a bit odd — in the novel he was explicitly autistic, but here he is merely borderline with Aspberger syndrome — but his doting father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), a jeweler and seeming jack-of-all-trades moves heaven and earth to enrich his child’s life and help him grow out of his own shell. That is, until what Oskar euphemistically calls “The Worst Day”. Thomas was in a meeting near the top of one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

A year later, Oskar feels the memory of his father slipping away, and reality slipping in. He holes up with whatever he can to remember Thomas, even surreptitiously replacing the answering machine so he can save his father’s last six messages. When he discovers a key in his father’s closet, Oskar is convinced it’s a clue in one last scavenger hunt like Thomas used to lay out for him in Central Park. The envelope it was kept in is marked “Black”, so he sets out to find every single person by that name in New York City to try to find the lock that fits his key.

It’s easy enough for him to get out; his mother (Sandra Bullock) sleeps all day in a caricature of depression that dovetails with Oskar’s caricature of autism. I don’t mean to say that this it’s unrealistic for depressed people to sleep odd hours, or for autistic people to speak in odd cadences and become obsessed with odd facts. But these aren’t characterizations; they’re shorthand for Depression and Autism that lazy storytellers can use to set up stock characters with a minimum of fuss.

More interesting is the mysterious man (Max von Sydow) who rents a room from Oskar’s grandmother, and of whom we see entirely too little. He and Thomas are the only decent characters to speak of, and Thomas, well, obviously he’s not around very much.

The action plays out split between Oskar’s search and his memories of The Worst Day. The search brings him into contact with the full spectrum of New Yorkers, each given only the briefest of glimpses. Oskar’s eccentricity is maddeningly predictable, always feeling like another quote of the idea of autism. This part is glurge and syrup.

The flashbacks, on the other hand, are sadistic. Screnwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry draw them out slowly. They pick around the edges of the scab, teasing us with stock audio and video and impression, knowing that we know full well the horror that lies ahead. To sit through this is an exercise in masochism, pinching ourselves emotionally black and blue in just the way we’re supposed to be shocked that Oskar does physically. Victims of trauma find themselves randomly reliving their nightmares, but this is planned and calculated for maximum impact. This is trauma, commodified.

I may be too close to this, though I was not present there on the day, nor was I in Washington, nor do I know anyone personally who was lost. I’m sure there’s a wide variety of reactions and associations across the nation and the world, but I do not believe my feelings are mine alone. “Edgy” comedians and rebellious kids on the internet may poke fun, looking for a reaction; I can ignore that because on some level they don’t know any better, and they’re mostly harmless anyway. But to take this and turn it into so much cheap sentimentality; another after-school special with an upbeat, feel-good ending? I have to stand up and draw a line: this you will not do; this will not be made cheap and tawdry, fodder for great big heartstring yanks; this will not be put through the mill, ground into so much sentimental sausage and shoved down into an uncritical maw; this is still sacred ground and you will stay the hell off of it and find something else to turn into a profit.

Until, of course, they don’t. It passes, like all things, from reverence to the subject of dark, defensive humor to just another reference. Eventually it will be used to sell breakfast cereal or denture cream instead of wars of opportunity and curtailment of civil rights. Eventually the eleventh day of the ninth month will become as generic as that of the eleventh; government employees might have the day off. So it may go, but I don’t have to like it.

There’s no story here; there’s no resolution or catharsis. There’s a calm slapped on after the histrionic climax, and some closing platitudes, but nothing really changes. The truth comes early: there cannot be a way to make sense of this because it doesn’t make sense. And, faced with this film, we must cry out along with the renter, “Please, stop. No more. Nothing good can come of this.”

Worth It: I cannot in good conscience recommend seeing this movie, but I recognize that on this, of all subjects, reactions are bound to be intensely personal.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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