Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) lost his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), on 9/11. About a year later, Oskar finds what he thinks is a message meant for himself in his father’s closet: an envelope with the word “Black” written on it, and a key inside. Inspired by the memory of the myth-burnished scavenger hunts his father used to devise for him — both as a bonding agent between them and a way for Oskar to confront his phobias — Oskar decides that “Black” is the name of someone who knew Thomas, and sets out to find that someone. No matter that there are 472 of them in the New York City phone book, or that this won’t change anything; he thinks it’s what his father meant him to do.
It’s the type of Rube Goldberg plot I usually dig, and would have really dug at Oskar’s age; at Oskar’s age, I also cherished a number of compulsions and superstitions about deaths in the family and how they might be warded off or, after the fact, solved for X. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has the tools to become a movie I would love.
I did not love it. I did not love that the so-called revelation about Schell Sr.’s farewell answering-machine messages “revealed” nothing and hinged on an idiot plot — that Oskar’s mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) wouldn’t run straight to the machine, or check it after asking whether Thomas called, or notice that the answering machine had disappeared, is ridiculous. I did not love Horn’s performance; it is a difficult role, I realize, but what is meant as realistic “spectrum behavior” seems mostly like an inexperienced actor tasked with a gamut of emotions and nuances he’s not ready for. (His scenes with Viola Davis emphasize this.) I did not love the tics substituted for traits, or how the film idealizes Thomas to an unrelatable degree while really telling us nothing about him.
The film is a smug, twee gallery audio tour of a family’s and a city’s grief. Put on the headphones provided; proceed to the first image; listen to the facts we have selected for you. When you hear the ping, move to the next dot on the floor. At the conclusion of the tour, which will linger fetishistically on some things and rush past others that fail to resolve neatly, you will receive a complimentary tote bag. We ask that guests avert their eyes from the loose ends. Thank you for visiting the Closure Museum.
It’s not the pimping of 9/11 that makes EL&IC so off-putting. It’s the tying of the handmade-art-project bow around Oskar’s mourning — there’s another bereft son out there! Mommy understands me! All better now! As overused and itchy a term as closure has become, it is the entire purpose of fictional narrative to impose order on chaos, and to bestow closure or peace on a child when perhaps we can’t in life is of course enormously appealing. But the film doesn’t trust its own hero. It has to tell us constantly how special and determined and pitiable Oskar is, cut in footage of him ranting uncontrollably (or another variation on Linda, hand clasped over her mouth, weeping silently through the twinkle of her engagement setting), team him up with a “mysterious” boarder at his grandma’s house who speaks in notes and YES/NO tattoos on its hands, or, failing all of that, another shot of the Towers going down, like, for the love of beer and skittles! If you want me to cry, pluck one of my eyelashes and save yourself some time, but if you want an Oscar for the privilege, how about you not act like we’re all too goddamn stupid to comprehend, or scale, a tragedy without the aid of a jingling tambourine? It’s manipulative and condescending, and whether it’s the book or the script, I resent it. Not every boy on a journey is Odysseus, or even Luke Skywalker, but Oskar only has to be the boy the story cares about, and he isn’t. He’s a tool for drawing parallels and jerking tears. Contempt for my perception duly noted, and returned in kind.
Max von Sydow does a wonderful job pretending that his character isn’t a gimmick — if it’s not the face he pulls in response to “Are you a stranger, technically?” that got him the nomination, it’s the one he makes when he’s awakened by a juice-box straw — but the man played chess with Death, for God’s sake. Write the part with half an inch of depth.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She’s the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.