There is an old adage that tells us that a recipe can only be as good as the ingredients that are used. If that is true, consider the Oscar-nominated Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It begins with director Stephen Daldry, a man so narratively gifted that all three of his previous films have gone on to earn “Best Picture” nominations. To that, you add the two-time, Academy Award-winning actor, Tom Hanks, in the role of a saintly father who may be the only person on earth who understands his uniquely challenged son. Now mix in Sandra Bullock, just two years removed from her own Oscar-winning performance, as a bereaved mother left to deal with her own grief, even as she struggles to help her son come to grips with his loss. Finally, take all these ingredients and set them in the context of the “jumpers” leaping from the burning towers on September 11th. What should emerge from the oven is a scintillating film that finally gives voice to our collective grief and rage. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, there are two critical weaknesses that take the legs right out from underneath this film and ultimately prevent it from becoming anything more than an overly-saccharine sympathy card that leaves nothing but a bad aftertaste in your mouth.
So what are the issues? Well, the first problem has to do with the adaptation of the source material itself. In fairness to Eric Roth, anytime a screenwriter has to distill the content of a novel down to a script that can be filmed in two hours, material is going to be sacrificed. But in this case, many of Jonathan Safran Foer’s most insightful musings on the nature of war and terror have been left on the editing room floor. In the novel, the only reason the grandfather re-emerges into the life of this scarred young boy is because he, too, knows what it means to lose a parent to the ever-turning gears of war. But here, in the film, the fire-bombings of Dresden during World War II are used only as a set up to explain the grandfather’s selectively mute nature. Thus, the larger theme of war and its impact on the lives of the innocent is almost completely absent. And that is a very real problem when you are attempting to say something of value on the subject of 9/11. If you do ultimately decide to see this film, ask yourself this: how would the film have been substantially changed if Oskar’s father did not die in the attacks of 9/11, but in a random car accident that left him with just enough time to place a few phone calls? If you believe, as I do, that nothing would have functionally changed, than you will begin to see the central problem with the film. To reduce the events of September 11th to nothing more than a plot device that allows a character to grow is to fundamentally disrespect the nearly 3000 people that lost their lives on that day in history.
The second major issue with this film has to do with the casting of young Thomas Horn. For some inexplicable reason, director Stephen Daldry made the decision to cast a complete unknown in the role of Oskar Schell. Prior to this film, Horn had never acted either in film or in television; and that is a massive liability for a film in which the young actor is required to play an emotionally shattered boy who is likely suffering from the effects of Asperger’s Syndrome as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yes, every once in a while, a Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense comes along to take us all by surprise. But that is the exception and not the rule.
So where does Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close sit in the pantheon of 9/11 films? Probably somewhere beneath Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and just above Adam Sandler’s Reign Over Me. At best, it’s an adequate film that leaves the viewer wondering: is it just too soon to expect a film to really be able to handle the events of that day?
This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language.