2011, 9/11, adaptation, Ali, Eric Roth, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Forrest Gump, Jeffrey Wright, Jonathan Safran Foer, Max von Sydow, Oskar Schell, Sandra Bullock, Stephen Daldry, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Viola Davis, Zoe Caldwell
Written by: Eric Roth based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright
Since it was published in 2005, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been my favorite book. It was one of the very first published books that dealt with 9/11 openly but what makes the book so good is that Foer explores a post-9/11 New York City without spending much time staring directly at the event. The reason that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not a very good film is because director Stephen Daldry and the chronically-sentimental screenwriter Eric Roth cannot stop looking.
9-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is an amateur entomologist, inventor, jeweler, vegan, pacifist, tambourine soloist, francophile, Beatlemaniac, philosopher, collector, adventurer, Stephen Hawking admirer, and tenacious sleuth who lost his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) in the 9/11 attack. Oskar, still desperate for closure a year later, enters his father’s closet only to break a vase which contains a mysterious key. Convinced that they key is a final scavenger hunt left by his father, Oskar begins an elaborate and ambitious search across New York City to find the lock that the key belongs to, believing that whatever is at the end of his quest will give him the answers he needs. In the novel it is made implicit, through thought patterns and behavioural rituals that Oskar might be autistic, which explains much of the compulsive activity, social hangups and emotional confusion that Oskar experiences. In the film, though it is directly referenced several times, Horn’s performance never betrays the possibility, making all of his quirks just seem misplaced rather than compulsive and rendering his bahaviour as hollow.
Oskar’s dizzying narration, and a secondary plot involving letters sent between Oskar’s grandparents, prevent the novel from being “about” 9/11. There are questions of love, communication and history that are made the core of the novel and Foer’s experimental writing style saves the novel from becoming saccharine, patriotic drivel. The screenplay, however, is written by the king of saccharine drivel, Eric Roth, whose films include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Ali, and Forrest Gump, three films that had their potential crushed by Roth’s trite, formulaic approach to writing. Daldry, too, has made his fair share of sentimental hogwash and together they have boiled Foer’s clever narrative down to little more than 2 hours of Twin Towers imagery and “where’s my daddy” dialogue. The secondary plot about Oskar’s grandparents, wartime lovers who write each other letters, is entirely absent from the film, rendering the section of the plot that involves a man known as The Renter (Max Von Sydow) entirely senseless. In the book, following The Renter as he lost his ability to speak, word by word, was the first time a novel ever brought me to tears but in the film it never comes up. The great von Sydown gives a brilliant performance as The Renter, but it’s not his fault that the character is mostly worthless.
It’s not that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is just bad when compared to the book, it’s that it’s bad period. It’s shameful for Daldry to make such a sappy, patrotic film full of cheap emotional manipulation and corny pseudo-symbolism and it’s even more shameful for awards groups like the Academy to homour such filmmaking. It’s easy to make people feel emotional by showing images of a child’s drawing of the twin towers, accompanied by weepy music and a teary-eyed mother (Sandra Bullock) and I just wish we, as a film-going community, would stop praising and rewarding slapdash filmmaking.