This is, without question, the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. I had a very difficult time expressing my distaste for this film, and deciding if I disliked it at all. The movie got awful reviews, and I was totally expecting a sappy, borderline offensive movie about 9/11 grief. That’s pretty much what this movie is. Yup. No better than that. So why don’t I hate it? Why am I not boiling over with rage? Why is every word that I type not dripping with venom? Believe me, I kind of wish that I was that angry. Really negative reviews are always more fun to write. But pulling the negative aspects out of this film is like chasing someone through a Hall of Mirrors. They’re in there somewhere, but they’re super difficult to catch, even after you get a glimpse of them. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t a bad movie. Except that it is. But it really isn’t. GAH.
The movie wasn’t painful to sit through, that’s the main thing. For most of the movie, I was entertained, and genuinely curious about the mystery. Compared to Hugo, this is definitely the better movie about a young boy who is trying to solve a mystery involving a key that might help him find a final message from his dead father. In Hugo, you could feel the running time, and it hurt. Loud and Close moves along at a nice pace for the most part. I was truly interested about what the solution to the mystery would be, and not out of detached personal desire. I was invested in the story of young Oskar. I wanted to know more about his life, I wanted to see what kind of person he grew up to be. I didn’t find him insufferable as I assumed that I would. In fact, young Thomas Horn gives a brilliant performance. There’s never a false note in it. Max von Sydow was even more interesting, as a mysterious mute man who helps Oskar on his journey. My biggest problem with the film lies with him. He’s the most interesting part of the whole movie, and his story has no conclusion whatsoever. He drives off two-thirds of the way through and we never see him again. It’s a gaping hole in a movie already pockmarked with tiny plot gaps.
Tom Hanks also gives a pretty good performance. Does this guy ever stop being an amazing actor? He’s in this movie for all of ten minutes, and he spend every second of his screen time completely immersed in his character. As for Sandra Bullock, I’m not sure. I’ve always had a weird thing about her. For some reason, I just don’t like her at all, despite all evidence that she’s a very good actress. I mean, this is the woman who won Best Actress at the Oscars and the Razzies in the same year. She’s pretty uneven. Here, she’s very one-note. However, that note is pretty good, so I really can’t fault her for it.
Speaking of wildly uneven things, the screenplay! Certain moments do play out perfectly, drawing emotion without becoming treacly or overly sentimental. Even better, director Stephen Daldry forgoes the score in these scenes, lending them a more raw, realistic power. The dialogue, for the most part, isn’t bad. I can’t remember any lines that were so awful that they stuck in my brain (Hugo had several, and some comparisons between the two films are justified). And on the subject of being unlike Hugo, I never tuned out of this film. I was with it, for better or for worse, until the very end.
And I suppose this is where I should talk about 9/11, and why this film really is bad at the end of the day. I wasn’t personally offended by the use of 9/11, because I understood why it was used. From a storytelling point of view, it’s no different than using the Titanic to tell a tale about star-crossed lovers. It uses the tragedy as a thematic through-line that connects Oskar with the people that he meets, just as Titanic uses the death of over a thousand people to tell a Romeo and Juliet story. However, this film goes over the line on a few occasions. A major plot point involves six messages that Oskar’s father left on their home phone while inside the World Trade Center. These messages are incredibly disturbing, but to its credit, the movie acknowledges this by having Max von Sydow’s character become increasingly distressed as Oskar plays the messages for him. The movie tries not to pretend that 9/11 is something to be brushed aside or used as a rack to hang its story on. But when a key — and totally expendable — visual motif is a man falling from the Twin Towers, and the film goes out of its way to show us those images, it feels unnecessarily unsettling. 9/11 needed to be a more subtle presence in the film, or not be there at all. Though the film tries to be respectful of the victims of the attack, it ends up being exploitative and crass.
The film is too mainstream, too Hollywood. I don’t think that this country can handle such a bold, in-your-face treatment of 9/11 right now. And I know that screaming “Too soon!” is often ridiculed, but I don’t think that it will ever be late enough for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. If the film had taken a more experimental step, it might have worked. An almost David-Lynchian (though maybe not that far) version of this film might have worked, because it would have kept the 9/11 references vague enough that the film wouldn’t have seemed so inappropriate. As it is, Loud and Close has many, many shots of the Towers burning or collapsing (which makes me want to talk to the poor visual effects artist who had to composite a burning World Trade Center into a New York skyline).
And now the hate is starting to flow. The way that the film treats 9/11 is truly its most egregious mistake. But I want to stress that this isn’t an awful movie. It just isn’t very good. This isn’t a movie where I’ll complain too much about what it could have been, because it really couldn’t have been anything but what it is. This movie really never should have been made in the first place. So the reason I’m disappointed is that it isn’t so bad that it deserves to be forgotten.