Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Stephen Daldry take on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an extremely laboured and incredibly contrived melodrama that follows a young boy’s struggle to make sense of his father’s death in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre. Insufferably saccharine and sanctimonious for its entire two and a half hour running time, Daldry’s literary adaptation aims high, which only gives it further to fall.

“The worst day” is how twelve year old Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn) repeatedly refers to 9/11, the day his jeweller father Thomas (Tom Hanks) died in one of the twin towers while there for a business meeting. As seen in generous flashbacks, Oskar and his father had a close relationship, with the older Schell concocting all manner of intellectual games for his young son who, it is hinted, has Asperger’s Syndrome. Socially awkward Oskar is bright and inquisitive but suffers from a mass of private fears and phobias, made even more pronounced by his father’s death. His mother (Sandra Bullock) is a busy office worker and played no part in bringing the youngster out of his shell, a distance that has grown since her husband’s death. On that fateful day, young Oskar had returned to the family’s empty apartment where he listened to six increasingly agitated messages from his father on the answering machine. He swapped the machine for a duplicate and used the tape as the centrepiece of a shrine he has constructed to his father in a cupboard, where he listens to his dead father’s voice over and over, looking to make sense of what happened. His mother knows nothing about it.

A year after the tragedy, Oskar finds a mysterious key in an envelope with the word “black” written on it. Seeing this as another clue in the games his father would play, Oskar takes it upon himself to find the lock that the key will open. He determines that “black” is a surname and decides to visit (on foot, as he is afraid of the subway) every one of the hundreds of people with that name in the New York phone book. This leads to a lengthy quest across each of the five boroughs as he visits a wide spread of likely stereotypes, looking for the message he is sure his father has left him. So beings a seemingly impossible task as Daldry’s trailing camera follows the youngster as he knocks on doors, talking to strangers, with only an elderly mute man known as The Renter (Max von Sydow) for company. The Renter – who has the words Yes and No tattooed on his hands - has a secret too, even if it is one that would not require an endless urban hike to uncover.

As he was written in Foer’s novel, the workings of Oskar’s mind were absorbed at the pace of the reader. On screen, there is no respite from his shrill, mile-a-minute voice-over, his incessant activity, his deadening precocity. If Oskar wasn’t insufferable enough, Daldry makes him carry a tambourine around the place as a kind of musical security blanket, which might well be comforting for the youngster, but set my teeth on edge. Horn is in almost every frame of the film, constantly throwing out references to his phobias and whimsical trivia. “If the sun were to explode, you wouldn’t even know about it for eight minutes”. Daldry’s film is one that would make you think eight minutes is not such a very long time to embrace oblivion.

Because of the enormity of the tragedy of 9/11, Daldry and his producers might expect their film to be greeted with hushed reverence and dabbed eyes. But a bad film is a bad film, regardless of what real-life events inspired it: had Oskar’s father died in a train crash, the boy’s grief would not have been any less. To extract meaningful drama out of mass tragedy requires skill, judgement and sensitivity, rather than co-opting the iconography of the event for gimmicky reconstructions, sentimental artifice and unmerited uplift.

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