Saturday, October 20, 2012

Catching Up: "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

 3 / 5 

There may never be a good or appropriate time to try to make a fictional film about the still-unfathomable tragedy that happened in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.  For those who lived through it, whether in person or on TV, what humanity lost on that day defies explanation: lives and property, yes, but innocence, faith, certainty, even (though we want it not to be true) hope.

Being only mildly familiar with the 2005 novel on which Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is based, I knew only that it used the events of 9/11 as a creative foundation, and in that regard had been targeted for criticism from the start -- anyone who tries to define the emotional aftermath of the U.S. terrorist attacks in a popular art form, especially one that's fictionalized, is an easy target.

So, it's natural to approach a major studio film about 9/11 with trepidation, particularly one based on a book that had tepid response, that features some of Hollywood's most popular mainstream movie stars, and is so, well, slick and polished.

Despite that, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close proves remarkably authentic in the way it tackles the difficult and intermixed nature of grief and guilt.  It keeps intact many of what were identified as the book's faults, particularly a borderline cloying relationship between the main character, Oskar Schell (an effective debut performance by Thomas Horn) and his father (Tom Hanks), who died at the World Trade Center.  It's this central relationship that is both critical to the success of the movie -- and in part its undoing.

This is the kind of father-and-son relationship that only exists in the movies: Dad's just ever so mildly eccentric, Son is possibly autistic, and they love each other so mightily and perfectly that they appear never to have fought or argued, and Dad only lives to develop the mind and feelings of Son.  Poor Mom, then, is relegated to a side role until late in the story.

A few days before Dad died, he created a game to help develop Son's sense of self, but of course Dad died before the game was afoot, and now it's up to Son to finish it.

Yes, this part of the movie is as sickly sentimental and sweetly unbelievable as it sounds.  Moreover, through a complete coincidence, the earnest Oskar discovers a key in his father's closet, but has no idea what it might open -- but he's convinced it will open something, so he traipses around all five New York boroughs to find it.

Yes, this part of the movie is as outlandish and treacly as it sounds.

But ... underneath all that, there at the heart of the film, is something completely unexpected: An honest, genuine attempt to use this boy's story, contrived though it may be, to explore some brutally tough territory, to get beyond the "bad-things-happen-to-good-people" platitudes and recognize that when they do, most people are totally unequipped to handle the outcomes.

Grief becomes wrapped up in mind-numbing, shattering guilt -- and for being a young boy, Oskar has more than his share of both about the events of Sept. 11.  His need to discover the lock the key can open seems remarkably random at first, and remains so even through the revelation, but also helps dig deeper.  When the mother (Sandra Bullock) finally figures into the story in a prominent way, their scenes together are dramatic and cathartic.

Oskar's transgressions on that Tuesday morning were minor, at best -- but they have so consumed him that they have become all-consuming.  Likewise, Mother knows her son resents her for being the parent who survived ... but, what can she do, except try to love her son even more for his hatred.

Yes, this is some surprisingly difficult -- and rewarding -- stuff.  Granted, it's all told with a high-gloss, Hollywood sheen. Should that be held against it?  No, but the need to edit and hone down the script (even at the risk of losing one of its major characters) might have been considered.  Still, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has a lot to recommend it; there may be no way, or even need yet, to explain what 9/11 meant to any of us, collectively or individually, but this is a movie that is admirable for its efforts to try.   

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