Sunday, February 26, 2012

Best Picture: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

"'Look, teacher,' the New York Times reported a child shrilling as the Twin Towers were becoming pyres: 'the birds are on fire.' Here was a sweet, infantile rationalization for an uncommon sight: human beings who had hesitated too long between the alternatives of jumping to their deaths or being burned alive, and who were thus jumping and burning." – Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Directed by Stephen Daldry, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is perhaps the most controversial of the nine films nominated for this year's Oscar for Best Picture. I'm not sure it's best-of material; the young hero's emotional outbursts could have been toned down, and the last 10 minutes drift into syrupy Pay It Forward territory. But overall this is a very powerful film. I disagree with those who maintain it has somehow exploited our national tragedy. Like Pan's Labyrinth, it's a whimsical tale with a very dark heart, showing an imaginative child dealing with unimaginable horror.

From its opening moments, the movie confronts that horror head on. We see a man with a familiar face (it's Tom Hanks) falling from the World Trade Center. My initial reaction was, "You can't show that!" But then I realized what the movie was doing. That terrifying shot isn't meant to be taken literally; we're in the headspace of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the movie's preteen hero. This is Oskar imagining the fate of his father, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I'll grant that it's a risky proposition, but I don't see why this is an invalid or inappropriate subject to tackle. A lot of kids must have gone through the same kinds of emotions Oskar goes through in the days, months and years following 9/11. He refers to the day his father was killed as "the worst day," and is bewildered by the idea that "you can be killed by people who don't even know you." Putting us in his shoes is an easy way to give the audience's tear ducts a good workout, but do the filmmakers overreach or have him do or say anything that a gifted, intelligent little boy wouldn't in the wake of catastrophic loss? I don't think so.

The movie has been adapted from the bestseller by Jonathan Safran Foer. I've read none of his books and only one of his short stories, "The Sixth Borough," which I highly recommend you read and which I gather from Wikipedia is part of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He's accused in some circles of making twee bullshit, but I think I'd enjoy most of his writing. I end up admiring most artists (like Wes Anderson) who have that charge leveled against them, if for no other reason than the sheer breadth of their creative resources. Foer's creativity is evident in Oskar's narration (having flipped through it, I know many of the lines in the film are taken directly from the novel), like when he talks about everyone swallowing microphones so we can listen to each other's heartbeats. And you can't say Foer doesn't know how to build a dramatic centerpiece; the secrets Oskar is hiding about the voicemails his father left on "the worst day" are absolutely devastating.

As mentioned earlier, Oskar can be a bit shrill at times, but I think that's more the director's fault than the actor who's playing him. Horn gives a performance that's extremely loud but incredibly convincing. 2011 was apparently beat-up-on-Tom Hanks year, which is unfortunate and unfair. The movie he starred in and directed last year, Larry Crowne, is about the sweetest, most harmless thing I can think of. I agree that his post-Cast Away filmography is spotty, but he's consistently made thoughtful choices; by no means has he sunk to the I'll-do-anything level of latter day Robert De Niro. This story needs an Everyman to give us the full weight of the 9/11 atrocities, and who better than Hanks? Best Supporting Actor nominee Max Von Sydow does fine work as an elderly man who befriends Oskar, though I find it amusing that this extraordinary Swedish actor, who possesses one of the most unforgettable accents in all of movies, has earned his second Oscar nomination for playing a mute. (Eleven Ingmar Bergman movies and only two nominations? Sheesh!) Maybe the filmmakers have successfully manipulated me, or maybe I'm just a sucker for movies that invite me on a tour of New York City. But I think Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is pretty underrated. It shouldn't (and won't) win Best Picture, but it's worth two hours of your time.

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