Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Too Soon: EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

I had Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on my list of films to see before I finalized my top ten list for 2011, but after the waves of critical negativity greeted its limited release, I took it off the list. The trailer, which for some reason seemed to play before at least a half-dozen films I saw during the fall, hadn’t been promising. But the pedigree (based on a Jonathan Safran Foer novel of some note, starring a bunch of Oscar winners and nominees that I quite like, directed by thrice-nominated Stephen Daldry) still had me interested. I had marked it down as a low priority and was all ready to move on when the Oscar nominations were announced. Surely the big surprise of that morning, the film made it on the list of nine nominees for Best Picture. Having seen the other eight titles, I once again felt the begrudging need to head out to the theater and see for myself.

I caught it in a mall multiplex near the end of its theatrical run. I’m glad I did. The film is not without it’s flaws. That’s putting it mildly. But I found it to be a compelling and even moving experience. Is it mechanical and manipulative in its use of a recent tragedy to give weight to its otherwise flimsy story? Certainly. But it barreled past my objections and worked on me. I can’t deny that it’s heavy handed, that it might just be too slick for its own good, that it meanders and sometimes bobbles its tone. But it’s also often powerfully acted and quietly absorbing in ways that surprised me given all the noxious critical reactions that surrounded its release.

The film is about a young boy (Thomas Horn) whose father (Tom Hanks) had a meeting in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In the opening scene he expresses disgust that his mother (Sandra Bullock) decided, since no body was recovered, to bury an empty coffin. His father’s death seems to resist closure. It is a wound that won’t heal, a scab at which he keeps picking away, hiding a makeshift shrine to 9/11 in the uppermost corner of his bedroom closet. For him, the idea of closure is at once intensely necessary and to be resisted. There can be no closure. The most wounding moment of the film comes in a scene that’s the least heavy-handed and the best acted in which the boy finds just the right words to hurt his mother, to lash out at the only person who can share his pain. In that scene, Horn is capably upset and Bullock's reaction is devastating. It’s a moment of emotional impact that I wouldn’t want to shrug off lightly.

Before 9/11, the father would create scavenger hunts to help the shy, awkward, but intelligent child learn how to go out into the world and find his way around obstacles. In his father’s death, the son finds the biggest scavenger hunt of all. He wants to find meaning in the tragedy, to find a way to make sense of his father’s death while honoring their relationship. He finds a key in a small envelope in the closet where his mother left his father’s belongings. Inside is a key. He thinks it will have all the answers. The poignancy comes from knowing that there are no answers to come, knowing that even if he does manage to find a lock that fits the key, he will eventually arrive at disappointment.

The envelope has one word written on it: “Black.” So, the boy looks up all of the people with the last name “Black” in the phone book and sets out to find them all, sneaking around his mother to do so. The concept of a little boy wandering by himself all over New York City is an oh-so-precious one, gaining what seems to be only strained precociousness with the addition of a neighbor, a mute, elderly Holocaust-survivor (Max Von Sydow) who takes it upon himself to look after the kid on some of these expeditions. And yet, the boy’s encounters with all manner of New Yorkers are just compelling enough to survive the sentimentality. Each person who decides to stop and hear his story contributes to this messy portrait of cross-cultural wounds in the wake of tragedy. The most affecting of these vignettes belongs to Jeffrey Wright and MVP Viola Davis, who once again proves that she can give depth and humanity to any role in which she’s cast.

But the quest of the key is ultimately, for me, beside the point. What really works here is the way the film circles around the tragedy, returning to it as the boy’s traumatic memories of the day continue to swirl in his head. Eventually, we get the full story of its impact on this family, of the way they first heard the news, the way they reacted to it as they began to realize they would never again see husband and father. Is it ultimately shamelessly manipulative? Undoubtedly. There’s a cringe-worthy shot in which Tom Hanks falls towards the camera, dropping out of the unseen World Trade Center and hurtling through a clear blue sky in slow motion. Yikes.

But there’s also a scene when Bullock spies the burning towers through a window at her workplace that’s an intensely sad and well staged moment. And there’s also a scene in which a phone cuts out at the same moment a TV in the background of the shot shows one of the towers collapsing. The sonic and visual trauma of the moment is effective and potentially overwhelming, much like the small catharsis that comes when Davis and Wright reappear in the narrative towards the conclusion. It’s a film in which people try to make their own sense out of tragic events, but that sense is inevitably smaller and more personal than the shared trauma.

This is a film that’s constantly teetering on the edge of disaster, not just the disaster of its subject, but a disaster of filmmaking as well. I found it to have some moments of great acting, especially from Davis and Bullock. I found it a film slightly more moving than cloying, slightly more emotional than egregious and, so, my reaction to the film ultimately tips slightly into the positive. Clearly, though, with material this volatile an approach so sturdy and oblivious, and a central character so potentially cloying, your mileage will most definitely vary. But reader, it held my attention and, by the end, I was surprised to find myself emotionally involved and moved. To report otherwise would be a disservice.

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