Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Big Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I wrote a shorter review for "The Weekender," but for those who like their hatred with a higher word count, here you go.

I know there were complaints a year or so ago when the Associated Press limited its movie reviews to 600 words. Part of me sees the harm in this, as it does cut down on the riffs and asides that provide color to reviews, which differntiates a review of a movie from a zoning board meeting recap. Another part of me thinks there's no problem with this. Do we really need 1,500 words on "The Grey"? Or even 800?

If the writing is crisp and expressive and full of good ideas, word count is irrelevant. Trina McKenna of "ICON", where this review originally was published and is being reprinted with permission, gives me cart blanche in terms of space. It's a dream situation, but it's also an excellent breeding ground to become a pompous ass.

I ain't there yet, thank God. So enjoy the review, and avoid the movie.


You know what Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close needs? Wes Anderson. In his best work The Royal Tenenbaums' director creates his own little retro world, giving us enough clues to assure us not to take everything so seriously, and filling it with characters whose flaws we embrace. Stephen Daldry cannot do that. His Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is intellectually precious and dripping with stylistic hiccups. It needs a director who detests the ordinary, who embraces the grand. Daldry directs as if quirk, like tension or romance, is part of every film lover's language. It is not.

For a movie rushed to theaters so it could be eligible for Oscar nominations, Daldry's approach is expected. (Note: I'm writing this two days before nominations are announced. If Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close gets any, we should all start preparing for that Mayan apocalypse.) Everything that distinguishes Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, however, is flagrantly, almost aggressively, negative: its lack of ambition, its condescending attitude, and its unpleasantness. The last trait is astounding since the movie includes Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, two actors who have built their legends by being more benign than anybody else.

The superstars, whose screen time is limited, are not the irritants. The actor who gets the limelight is 14-year-old newcomer and former Jeopardy! champ, Thomas Horn. He plays Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old who enjoys a special relationship with his father, Thomas (Hanks). The old man creates elaborate hunts—or "reconnaissance expeditions"—for his shy, awkward son, many of which involve talking to strangers. As part of their twee rapport, father and son also commiserate over maps in ice cream parlors and stage oxymoron battles. Mom (Bullock) lurks in the background, showing little concern that her son is talking to New York City derelicts and demonstrating the snobby attitude of a Starbucks barista forever five credits short of their philosophy Ph.D.

Life is beautiful until September 11, 2001, when Oskar's dad dies in the World Trade Center attacks. A year passes. Oskar's memories start to fade, causing him to venture into Dad's bedroom closet, where a vase tumbles from a shelf. The clues quickly mount: A small envelope, "Black" neatly printed on it, which contains a key. A newspaper clipping in Thomas' pocket that has the words "not stop looking" circled. The boy is convinced that his father wants him to find something. Equipped with an organizational scheme inspired by a John Hodgman diagram, Oskar starts visiting every Black listed in the five boroughs' phone books.

Such an investigation isn't easy for Oskar, who is scared of everything around him, including bridges and people with bad teeth. The audience is also in for a rough trip. Daldry stages his journey on real-life terms, which makes everything all the more preposterous: Max von Sydow, Oskar's voluntarily mute companion, displaying "yes" and "no" on the palms of his hands; the stylish photos of ordinary people taken by Oskar that resemble what Diane Arbus had taken if she favored Kodachrome; Oskar's book of his journey, which belongs in the window of a Park Slope stationery store. And is anyone else disturbed that a kid is roaming the five boroughs alone, even if mom is too grief-stricken to notice?

The world Oskar occupies needs to be bigger, wackier, something so we aren't constantly confronted with the burden of reality. (One reason why Super 8 and Hugo worked so well is because the films looked like storybooks.) Oskar, an eloquently verbose and tortured soul governed by his own pretzel logic, cannot exist in the real world. Under that enchanting spell of realism, Oskar's journey becomes dull. Magic can't bloom here. Neither does character development. Oskar may be clever and plucky, but he's also an impatient brat who, when not talking like a haughty boy robot, blurts out his fears. Horn delivers a corrosive performance, but I don't think he has much choice. Oskar is clearly a mess. He's fatherless, pinches himself to the point of bruising, and treats his elders like peons. He even admits that he was tested for Asperger's. But couldn't someone—Daldry, veteran screenwriter Eric Roth (who penned Forrest Gump, for crying out loud)—have found a way to make Oskar tolerable? The only way I would ever get behind Oskar is if I could push him off a cliff. A hero that engenders such spitting hatred has to violate every tenet of screenwriting.

Hanks and Bullock come and go, though in the film's final stretch Bullock's character proves that she's a good mother. The takeaway message for parents: indulge your kid's behavior no matter how dangerous or misguided. After all, kids are people who need to let go of grief in their own way. Really? The value of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, though it's unintentional, is that it reveals the true threat to this nation. It's not fear and uncertainty. It is the current generation of coddled, bratty, flash card-trained little monsters who never hear "no" from their parents. [PG-13]

1 comment:

Marc said...

Funny and deeply satisfying review of a movie I'll never see. There's not an ounce of pompousness here.
I grok the value of length-limits, but I'd pay to read you in long-form, New Yorker style, grey blocks of "sweet sweet text". In fact I'd pay you $5 to write 3,000 words on either Waking the Dead (with Jennifer Connelly, as vivid as Eva Green if you get my drift) or Grace of My Heart, two movies that were both unjustly unpopular and either loved or hated.