We need to talk about Oskar. Oskar is not your average 11-year-old. On screen every minute of Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, he is a highly intelligent but isolated, hyperactive, 11-year-old motor-mouth who has been tested for Asperger’s Syndrome with inconclusive results. Surprisingly nominated for an “Oskar” for Best Picture, the screenplay by Eric Roth based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer unnecessarily brings the trauma of 9/11 front and center for grieving families of the tragedy to relive. Although newcomer Thomas Horn does an outstanding job of portraying the insufferable young boy, his non-stop chatter about irrelevancies becomes excessively irritating after about ten minutes of the film.
Oskar’s heart is broken when his larger than life dad Thomas (Tom Hanks) is one of the victims of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 after being hit by two jetliners in a terrorist attack. The early part of the film shows the close relationship Oskar had with his father, playing verbal games and engaging in so-called “reconnaissance expeditions” where they attempt to find indicators showing that there was once a Sixth Borough of New York. Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock), however is distant and not a central part of the boy’s emotional spectrum. On “the worst day,” his dad is trapped attending a meeting on the 105th floor of the Trade Center when the planes hit.
Though Thomas makes six calls to his family, they go unanswered. Oskar continuously replays the tapes but withholds their knowledge from his mother who is left to suffer without knowing her husband’s fate, and whom he later tells that he wishes that she had died in the attacks instead of his father. The main part of the story unfolds when Oskar discovers a small envelope in his father’s closet that contains a key. The name Black is written on the envelope and the boy, encouraged by a newspaper clipping with the words “never stop looking” circled, incongruously sets out to interview the 472 “Blacks” listed in the phone book in hopes that finding the lock that the key fits will bring a message from his father.
Fearful of public transportation, Oskar does a lot of walking always accompanied by a tambourine which provides some relief from his anxiety. Not only is this trek dangerous for a boy that young to be wandering the streets in all sections of the city, it is also logistically impossible for it to be accomplished given the movie’s timeframe. A later revelation of his mother’s involvement in the quest is even more unbelievable. Generally uncharacteristic of New Yorkers, most people he visits treat him with loving kindness, especially a young woman (Viola Davis) who gives Oskar special encouragement even in the middle of her husband (Jeffrey Wright) walking out on her.
The most genuine part of the film is Oskar’s interaction with the mysterious man, (82-year-old Max von Sydow) known only as “The Renter,” who is renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) who lives across the street. The old man cannot talk as a result of a traumatic experience but communicates with Oskar by writing notes on a pad of paper and by the “yes” and “no” that he has inscribed on the palm of his hands. Their relationship is gimmicky but about the only connection in the film that doesn’t feel artificial.
In other hands, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might have been an emotionally resonant experience of devastating loss and the quest for completion. In spite of some excellent performances, however, Daldry never comes to grips with the potential of the material, instead offering a contrived, manipulative, and shallow exercise that does little more than grate on the nerves. In searching for answers, Oskar’s mother shouts the superficial nostrum that “it doesn’t make any sense.” The same can be said of the film.
©2012 Howard Schumann
We will be adding new content every day over the next week as we begin rolling out the new site, culminating in the full transition to the new site along with the debut of our Facebook page next weekend.