The term “unfilmable” is tossed around a fair amount these days, in reference to stories told in other mediums (books, comics, video games, real life) that could not be adequately translated to the screen, and yet Hollywood keeps pushing the boundaries. Watchmen was unfilmable because of its meticulous detail and the flood of iconic images associated with it - but Zack Snyder went ahead and tried it anyway. But then you encounter stories that are designed for the heavily prose-based narrative format of a book, or stories that feature characters that are enriched with an interior monologue. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is both of those.
So from the get-go, not only have the writers shot themselves in the foot, but I have to re-examine how I evaluate this movie. In what it aims to adapt, it is ambitious. Oskar (appropriately named, since this film was nominated for two of them) is a kid living in New York. From his obsessiveness and speech, he probably has some sort of mental disability (Asperger’s is brought up, but there’s a good chance he has autism, too.) As the film begins, his father has recently died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. The film is told out of chronological order: the main narrative begins on the day of Oskar’s father’s funeral, one significant and extended flashback takes place on the day of the attacks, and several other flashbacks have no apparent anchor in time.
Not a single one of these things is easy to pull off; that the film is coherent at all is cause for celebration. But it’s competent, not exciting, and a few of those items fall flat even if they’re done well.
Let’s start with the kid. Child actors are put under the microscope in Hollywood, and rightly so. They’re hard to write for; it’s easy to write a kid to sound too old, too pretentious, or both. And don’t forget that we’re talking about a kid with a mental disability. So Oskar is thorough, easy to anger, and brutally honest. Unfortunately, knowing he has a disability doesn’t make me like him more.
We’re not supposed to read stories to like characters. Here, though, I think we are, because we’re supposed to be taking this journey alongside Oskar. Failing that, we should at least understand where he’s coming from. I would have better understood Oskar’s struggle if I could have witnessed Oskar’s pain. There’s an early sequence where he sees, hears, and smells every little detail around him and feels overwhelmed by it, but it’s accompanied by an unnecessary and rather jarring narration that brought me out of the scene completely. His temper tantrums and cruelty to those around him aren’t offset enough by that. Logically, I understand that Oskar needs to have a system to function (leading to his climactic outburst around the end of the first act), but this is shown neither consistently nor effectively.
You could lay the blame at the feet of many people for this. One could blame the actor, Thomas Horn, whose emotions are stagnant and whose aggression lacks direction. One could point the finger at the director, who gets mixed results from most of his actors; for instance, I have seen Tom Hanks do better with worse material. Or one could implicate the writers for the risky structure of the story. The Help essentially revolved around the performances of two experienced black actresses, and the film is better for it despite its rampant clichés. Meanwhile, ELIAC is almost exclusively under the reins of young Horn. It is risky to center a film around several child actors; riskier still to center it around only one; and riskiest of all to make his the voice and face the only one almost constantly heard and seen. Since, as I mentioned, his performance is only mediocre, the film falls flat.
It is almost saved by the presence of Max Von Sydow, here playing a mute war victim known only as The Renter. Here is a lesson in subtlety, next to a child actor who could use it. Von Sydow never says a word, speaking only via messages scribbled in his notebook. But he never fully reveals himself, and so we are curious to know more about him. In addition, he puts the young Oskar in his place, dismissing or challenging Oskar’s fears because, we can only assume, the Renter has seen greater ones. This grounding is sorely needed in a story narrated by an overdramatic child, and whether the problem, again, is from the writers or the kid, the Renter’s jokes and frankness are a welcome relief.
I don’t envy Sandra Bullock, who is given an almost non-part, but while her role as an independent person is shabby (she is extremely emotional, and not well fleshed-out), she is a very effective mother figure, and an appreciably calming influence on Oskar. Other actors (Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis as an estranged couple; Zoe Caldwell as Oskar’s grandmother) are sometimes very good. The film was marketed as a panoply of stories and encounters from the perspective of Oskar, but in reality there are really very few. A couple of montages are presented well. I thought this might drive the film away from the narrative of “charming determined boy brings people together from his quest,” and it almost does. Wright and Davis start to make up after meeting Oskar, but this makes decently logical sense, as Oskar’s MacGuffin was a large reason for their divorce in the first place. When the Renter reconciles with his wife and Oskar reconciles with his mother, things start to become a little more statistically improbable. I was happy to see the mother and son find solace in each other, but her methods seem extreme, and von Sydow’s ending is hastily tacked on. I assume this narrative was conceived as the beginnings of healing after the terrorist attacks, which is unnecessary, and less satisfying than the simple joy of one pair of characters wherein each realizes the other’s worth. As a piece incorporating 9/11 elements, it is far better than the despicable Remember Me, but not as grippingly imagined as United 93 or imaginatively reconceived as the season one finale of Fringe.
As a film, it is adequate. The soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat is a blend of quirky piano and unassuming strings; the film is cleanly produced, and topped off with a final message from the dead. It’s neat and tidy without presuming to completely heal the wounds of 9/11, and that may be why it was nominated for the Academy’s premiere award. Unfortunately, I think it’s part of a group of movies this year nominated for the award that satisfy, rather than transcend, the thirst for a good picture (The Help, War Horse), which is a deep contrast from last year’s selections (Black Swan, The Social Network). This is satisfying enough, non-summer blockbuster fare, but no better. Hollywood can challenge itself more.
By: Paul Anderson