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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Review: Baffling Best Picture Nominee

The strong acting somewhat elevates the rote material, but Daldry’s film ultimately fails to rise above the schmaltzy limitations of Eric Roth’s disappointingly trite script.

rating: 2.5

When this year€™s Academy Award nominations were announced on January 24th, and a surprise ninth panel flipped over to reveal that Stephen Daldry€™s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had been nominated for Best Picture, the world of film criticism was stunned. Though at the time sight-unseen for most UK pundits, it had received a notably lukewarm critical reception state-side, causing many to wonder, is this going to sit alongside the likes of The Blind Side as one of the worst Best Picture nominees in history? Though inexorably more refined than the aforementioned film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is nevertheless a baffling choice for the Academy, a not-terrible though extremely flawed work which with its nomination best conveys the Academy€™s deep affection for director Daldry, whose four films have netted either Best Director or Best Picture nominations without exception. What might tip the balance for many Oscar voters, though, is the subject matter; adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer€™s acclaimed novel of the same name, we are presented with a view of the horrific events of 9/11 through the eyes of a young boy, Oskar Shell (Thomas Horn), as he tries to come to terms with the death of his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who was trapped in one of the towers when they fell. When searching through his father€™s things, he comes across a blue vase which houses inside a key, one which he believes will take him to something which his father left behind for him, perhaps a reassuring message. The envelope containing the key has the surname €œBlack€ written on it, and so Oskar goes about finding everyone with that name living in New York, quizzing them about the key until he finds the lock that it opens. It would take a hardened cynic to say that there is not a story here worth telling, because the heart of the matter is certainly well-intended, exploring the agony of sudden loss from the perspective of a child. The problem, ostensibly, is that Oskar cannot just be a normal child; he has to be a quirky, creepily precocious, annoyingly noisy one, which somewhat dilutes the heaped sympathy we would otherwise feel for him. We don€™t know quite what is different about Oskar €“ early on he asserts a test for Asperger€™s turned out inconclusive - but in the distressing tradition of film children, he has to have an obtuse life perspective, while the audience is supposed to find his peculiar behaviour charming and unique. That€™s the least of it, though; while Foer€™s novel is widely recognised as one of the most resonant engagements with the collective emotional and cultural ramifications of 9/11, little of that appears to have transpired through to this film, which renders its timely subject matter indeed quite moot. That Oskar€™s father dies in 9/11 is almost entirely inconsequential to the rest of the narrative; he could have been hit by a drunk driver or killed in a mugging, and so focusing a lens over a painful national tragedy feels questionable at best and vaguely exploitative, as well as quite probably Oscar-baiting. The voicemail messages that Thomas leaves his son are admittedly rousing and upsetting, but when the film then opts for gorgeously-photographed wide-angle shots of the Twin Towers on fire, as well as an unexpectedly crass €“ though thankfully brief - CGI shot of who appears to be Tom Hanks falling through the sky, the stylistic and, by proxy, the thematic cogs feel manipulative and even a little tasteless. It is truly a shame that Daldry couldn€™t find a way to reign in the excesses, because while the script is chock full of treacly truisms and dialogue that a child simply would never say, it is credibly acted across the board, notably from lead Horn, who, despite barely being a teenager at the time of shooting, manages to virtually carry the film. That the script renders him irritatingly hyperactive really is not his fault; he surely has a bright future and I look forward to seeing what he does next. As Oskar€™s parents, Hanks and Sandra Bullock are solid; the former waltzes in and out of the film rather quickly, but Bullock gets some outstanding moments to emote near the end, even if her character follows a maddeningly convoluted arc which leaps completely off the deep end at the film€™s close. Jeffrey Wright also manages to almost steal the film in one late scene, but most eyes will probably be fixed on Max von Sydow, who stunned by earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as €œThe Renter€, a mute old man who helps Oskar on his quest. Von Sydow€™s wonderfully expressive, weathered face is a welcome counterpoint to the ADD-addled nature of the film€™s protagonist, yet the fact that the performance was deemed nomination worthy €“ over the likes of Ben Kingsley (Hugo), Christoph Waltz (Carnage) and John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) €“ reeks of Academy voters attempting to justify their Best Picture nomination above all else. For all of the fine acting, though, there€™s no escaping the sour taste the film leaves precisely because it makes of 9/11 an overwrought study of an irritating young man€™s attempts to find meaning in the senseless murder of his father. That expected feeling of community and togetherness, of capturing the collective agony and loss of those months and years following those terrible events is not present, merely calculated as an affectation to make you weep, and indeed, win Oscars. The contrived nature of the drama, keenly fashioned with a smug sense of worthiness, is instead leaden, a little tacky, and one might say even does the Oscars a little bit of a disservice. And yes, the film even ends on a cheesy freeze frame. The strong acting somewhat elevates the rote material, but Daldry€™s film ultimately fails to rise above the schmaltzy limitations of Eric Roth€™s disappointingly trite script. It might not be quite as insulting a Best Picture nominee as The Blind Side, but it€™s incredibly close. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is out now in the UK.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.