Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
There has been a massive amount of controversy surrounding the release of this reasonably small picture, specifically in regard to its so called ‘over-sentimentalising’ of real-world events. The film tells the story of a young, possibly autistic boy, Oskar Schell, who’s father was in the World Trade Centre on the eleventh of September and his subsequent quest to come to terms with that loss by locating the lock to match a mysterious key. Many people found the films use of that terrible, tragic day to be exploitative and shocking well before they had ever set eyes on the execution in the final product; what I find shocking is that in these arguments the term ‘sentiment’ is being thrown around as a criticism and not a compliment.
Cinema, as a pure idea, is an exercise in semiotics with the intention of evoking emotion; a symbol splashes up on the screen and we scry meaning from it, the most potent of which mean something to us on a visceral level, we feel them as much as we see them. If with a simple play of light a director can make you cheer, cackle or even cry then they have achieved not only their intention, but something amazing. Sentiment then is surely the aim of the game, therefore if Extremely Loud is overly sentimental then it should be judged as a success; I mean you never hear of anyone accusing, say, the Giants of scoring too many points in the Superbowl (Topical!). Anything else is just jealousy then right? Or a bunch of cold, clinical critics too afraid to let anyone know that they cried? Well not necessarily.
Though these claims are ridiculous that’s not to say that Extremely & Incredible is a flawless film, far from it in fact. Cinema has come a long way over the past hundred or so years and its evolutions have come in the form of complexities; every iteration of the medium is more complicated and loaded with meaning than the last and it is in these extra facets that the film falls apart. If you show any empathetic person audience a person effected by 9/11 then you will elicit from them an emotional response, especially when they are a child, but it’s the way in which they are effected and how you tell it to them that determines how long the story will stay with them.
I relate it to the old adage that “No desert you can cook will ever taste better than a block of chocolate on a plate.” No matter how often the idiom is imparted I still don’t hold it to be true, though it does have some merit; the pure, unadulterated experience is often the sweetest but our favourite deserts are those crafted to compliment that fantastic flavour. Sentiment too is a vital ingredient, and Extremely has high-grade stock in excess but it doesn’t know how to properly craft itself around that. To further stretch this already straining metaphor I will qualify that the dish is not burnt – there is no one fatal flaw in its production – but bland; everything that they have adorned the dish with is tasteless and thus falters in comparison to the flavour of the chocolate, so why did they even bother?
What most bothers me about this fact is that the book by Jonathan Safran Foer is so exciting and daringly made. All adaptations abridge their source somehow but seeing what was skipped here simply highlights the film’s central flaw. Sure the original features much of the same material but the ratios were more immaculately balanced; here the sentimental scenes are stressed while content that should be savoured – such as the juxtaposing of Jewish history, the effect of the search on Oskar and the stunningly unorthodox structure – is simply skimmed over. Certainly some of this criticism is inevitable given just how tied the material is to its original medium, Foer constantly finds new and exciting ways to subvert the standard page, but there would have been ways to carry over the feeling of this style, if not the specifics. It seems though that Daldry was interested only in the specific story of 9/11 whereas the book was much more about the more macro idea of trauma irregardless of event. Having good ingredients is important, but recipes exist for a reason; you cannot simply stack the scales according to what is in stock.
In terms of specifics, because this has been a very vague review, the film is adequate enough. Hanks and Bullock put in frumpy, well-worn performances as Oskar’s parents while the likes of Wright, Goodman and Davis deliver much more than they need to given that their roles essentially equate to cameo’s. Max Von Sydow is getting most of the acclaim and his work here is very good but a lot of the charm is due to its novelty, were he to win over the other amazing performances in the category I think that would be a shame. Daldry’s direction is fine and the film looks good, occasionally he splurges on an interesting shot or sound effect – Oskar’s tambourine is the one thing that works better here than in the original – but these are few and far between.
Ultimately there is nothing to really dislike here, but nothing that excited either. I cried a bit and enjoyed my time enough to warrant watching the film, but then chocolate is a flavour I enjoy and I would probably have enjoyed it the same if it were presented plain on a plate. So again I have to ask, why did they bother baking it? And ‘Best Picture’? Bah, that could only be the balloters over-sentimentising that day in September.
P.S. For those that found anything to like here I really do reccomend the book, as my essay attests (Link HERE) I think it is a pretty important book.