Friday, February 3, 2012

There Are No Happy Endings: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’s Feel Good 9/11 Spin

Ten years after 9/11 and Hollywood filmmakers are still not sure how to handle cinematic depictions of the tragedy. They obviously and understandably won’t excuse the terrorists for their horrendous crimes. Nor will they blame the United States for what happened that fateful day as one ignorant Toronto film writer did when she wrote that America was both the victim and architect of 9/11. But they also can’t handle dealing with the raw emotions still evoked from that horrible day on Sept. 11, 2001. Excepting for United 93 (2006), Paul Greengrass’s emotionally powerful depiction of the occurrences on board one of the doomed flights, they’ve been content to stick to simple emotions such as were on display in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). American independent filmmakers have been more forthright on the subject, but generally have used their platform rather myopically, either assailing supposed Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 (Civic Duty, 2007) or to criticize American attitudes towards immigrants post 9/11 (The Visitor, 2007). None of the films on the subject, however, have tried to gloss over what happened then or put a positive spin on the tragedy, until now, with the unfortunate release of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And feel good movies about 9/11 are no more palatable or less offensive than feel good movies on the Holocaust like Life is Beautiful (1997) or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

The film, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel of the same name, revolves around the precocious Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, making his film debut), who cannot come to terms with the fact that his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) has died on 9/11, one of the thousands trapped in the World Trade Center buildings. To cope with his loss, and prompted by the accidental discovery of a key among his father’s possessions a year after 9/11, he determines that his dad has left him a clue, reminiscent of the scavenger hunts they used to conduct. With the name Black emblazoned on the key, he sets out to discover the person it belonged to, an odyssey that eventually results in a catharsis for the boy and the people he comes across in his hunt for the key’s owner.

Sandra Bullock and Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Foer’s book, which I simply could not get into, was rife with stream of consciousness dialogue, experimental writing and off kilter techniques of the tiresome sort author Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) made a whole career out of purveying. It was a far cry from Foer’s fine 2002 debut Everything is Illuminated, which managed to bring a fresh, welcome eye to the theme of the Holocaust’s effect on the children of survivors. The film version of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, though, could have used some experimentation, if only to distinguish it from the banal Hollywood norm. Instead, director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), hardly a brilliant director, and writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich), at his sappiest here, offer up a conventional, bathetic story, whose sole intent is to make the viewer shed a few tears and feel better after the credits have finished rolling. (It didn’t work on me, but I’d be lying if I said no one was sniffling at the public screening I attended. It’s hardly surprising that the movie garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture since, like Titanic and Shakespeare in Love, it’s the type of pap Hollywood likes so much.)

The movie is at its most sentimental when it brings in Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries), a mysterious old man known by the boy as The Renter, as he is renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). Because of a trauma in his past, he cannot or will not talk, preferring to communicate by writing his words out in a notepad. (His trauma apparently – the film doesn’t state this outright – arose when, as a young child in Germany, his parents died when an Allied bomb hit their bomb shelter. But if so, the movie, seems, incredibly enough, to be equating innocent Americans during 9/11 and Germans in World War Two, who by and large elected and supported Hitler. They certainly weren’t innocent in the way we understand the term.) It’s a ridiculous part for the great von Sydow – though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscar folk) didn’t think so, nominating him for Best Supporting Actor for the role – since it allows him little to do but grimace, smile and occasionally show exasperation with young Oskar, a reaction I can certainly relate to. No doubt, some will find Oskar to be an engaging sort, but to my mind this haranguing, annoying little twerp is the most irritating juvenile presence on screen since Jason Schwartzman’s comparable turn as Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s off-putting Rushmore (1998). Of course, we’re supposed to excuse Oskar’s behaviour since he is hurting, but Horn, whose (possible) acting abilities are buried under the built-in histrionics of the part, wears out his welcome pretty fast. Oskar’s also not as smart as he’s purported to be since it never occurs to him that the Black he is trying to find, by looking up the hundreds of people listed under that name in the New York City area phone book, may not even be listed there or would have moved in the year since 9/11 occurred.

Max von Sydow and Thomas Horn

The movie also chooses to ignore reality when it allows Thomas, who is trying to reach his son (who had been sent home early from school), to leave six messages on the Schell’s answering machine even though it’s made clear when he calls his wife Linda (Sandra Bullock) beforehand at her place of work that he cannot stay on the line too long as he’s sharing a phone with many others trapped with him in the Tower. So how does he manage to call home a half dozen times in such a short period of time? This may seem like nit-picking on my part but if details like this bother me, it’s a sure sign that I’m not buying into the story laid out before me on screen. It doesn't help that the scenes of the panic and fear New Yorkers evinced on 9/11 lack the urgency that was evident in the television coverage we all saw that day.

All the film’s plot lines, from Thomas’ fateful phone calls, to the end result of Oskar’s scavenger hunt (the identity of the key’s owner leads to a particularly manipulative, sentimental conclusion), to a revelation about The Renter, all exist for one reason and one reason only, to have Oskar finally deal with his repressed feelings of pain and anger towards the loss of his dad and, not incidentally, to reconcile with his mother who’s he pushed away in the meantime. Life goes on in other words, and happy endings can still come true. Poor Sandra Bullock, if ever a role was a thankless one it’s this part. Viola Davis (The Help) and Jeffrey Wright (W., Source Code), as two of the people looked up by Oskar, can also legitimately complain about the paucity and thinness of their parts. Bullock, at least, offered an edgy performance in her last film, The Blind Side; Hanks (Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan) has long given up challenging himself or the viewer with shaded parts. Thomas is simply a nice guy and nothing more than that. Bullock is, however, allowed one honest scene when Oskar tells her he wishes she’d died in the Tower instead of Thomas. When her son apologizes for those hurtful words, she refuses to let him off the hook, as she knows he meant them, and, then adds that she wishes, too, that she had perished that day instead of her husband. It’s the sole moment in the film – and full credit to Bullock for pulling it off – that is authentic and sincere. (Alexandre Desplat, whose scores for The King’s Speech and the last two Harry Potter films were quite fine, lays on the syrup in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.)

The 9/11 Memorial in New York City
It’s not that one can’t deal honestly with the emotional fallout of 9/11 and its permanent effect on those who were left to carry on when their loved ones died. TV’s Rescue Me, which ended its seventh and final season last fall in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, did just that, even as the series otherwise petered out to an unsatisfying conclusion. The comedy/drama about New York firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) and his pals coping with the death of 343 of their own, including Tommy’s cousin Jimmy, always came back to 9/11, and what it meant to the survivors. (Leary actually lost a cousin and a close childhood friend in a devastating conflagration in 1999 that killed six firemen in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.) The series ended on a painful, anguished note as those firefighters were honoured, and its final image was of the preparations of the 9/11 memorial, which was finally unveiled on September 11, 2011. Earlier in the season, Tommy reluctantly consenting to an interview about 9/11, lashes out at an asinine question from the interviewer, by emphatically declaring, “There are no happy endings.” (And though Rescue Me ended with a redemptive birth, as well as a significant death, it largely stayed loyal to that stark declaration.) Gavin’s comment is certainly a truthful one, even if the makers of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would falsely have you believe otherwise.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

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