“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” Sure Is Descriptive
Adapted from the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” evokes the recent literary wave of self-conscious precocity probably begun with Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Such titles, stacking up adjectives and adverbs like stones in fortress walls, have a common angle on grappling with grief: the will to outthink it.
Foer’s grief was the national trauma of 9/11, and he made a bet that pathos or at least a bravura intellectual exercise could be wrung from a good-faith effort to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Well, nothing says self-conscious precocity quite like a literary-seeming, puzzle-solving boy. Here we meet Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a socially inept pre-teen enthusiast of the urban scavenger hunts organized by his father, a Manhattan jeweler of European Jewish extraction (Tom Hanks!), to foster the boy’s innate intelligence and draw him out. After dad dies in the Trade Center attacks, Oskar finds a key in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it, and defaults to their established routine, methodically tracking down and interrogating the hundreds of New Yorkers whose last name is Black. Did his father leave him a last message?
Several, actually, on the answering machine that terrible morning. But those are beyond unsatisfying. They’re unbearable. In fact, Oskar won’t even let his mother (Sandra Bullock) hear or know about them. Instead he sticks to his mission, as recorded in a busy system of maps and file cards and calculations and industriously elaborate scrapbooks, not to mention the invasive questions he fires off at strangers. Also, he carries a tambourine around and regularly jiggles it in order to calm himself.
In short, Oskar has one of those tic-constellation personalities that work much better in prose, where they’re safe under the abstracting insulation of reader imagination, than in movies. I mean, unless we’re talking Wes Anderson movies, where the insulation is an operational sense of humor, and the warp of image-amplified literalism is exactly the ironic and melancholic idea. Alas, it is not Wes Anderson we have to thank for the movie of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” but rather the quirk-neutralizing team of screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry, respectively the men responsible for “Forrest Gump” and “The Reader.”
Here it’s supposed to be a joke that Oskar’s Asperger’s test was inconclusive. From his unrelenting obnoxiousness, we may at least infer that he’s not so good on empathy. But the movie asks for patience only to try it. Must every stage of grief accommodate being a brat? That so many people tolerate Oskar’s rude impatience seems like a delusional fantasy of New Yorkers’ resiliency, and therefore a disservice to it. As is the solidarity so belabored by the literary conceit of his community-connecting quest.
It is little pleasure to report that the casting is good for the movie this is. When you trade ethnic specificity for an affable (and bankable) common touch, it should come as no surprise that what you get is unsubtle Hollywood mush. Child’s play, as it were, for Hanks and Bullock, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” marks the movie acting debut for Horn, freshly plucked from success on the “Kids Week” edition of Jeopardy! His smarts and stamina accord with the Foer mandate, just as his diminutive yet clobbering presence suits his tediously sensible screenwriter and director. Hopefully he’ll get better gigs hereafter.
The same hope also goes for John Goodman, stuck here as Oskar’s doorman, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, as a fragile couple at the center of his odyssey, and Max Von Sydow, a mysterious mute helper who communicates only via Moleskine notebook. For its occasional strenuous efforts at cinematic lyricism, arguably the signature image of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a weary Von Sydow dozing on a New York City bus, suddenly awoken by the straw of the kid’s juice box shoved in his mouth. In other words, an icon of European movie dignity left groggy and adrift in American public transit, facially violated by an effusion of prefabricated sweetness. No, the world is not the same as it once was.
In retrospect maybe the adverbial overstatement of the book’s title can be read as a red flag to any would-be movie adapter. We know films can’t be novels; they shouldn’t be greeting cards either.
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