By Daniel Barnes
In the decade following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Hollywood made a few films that attempted to recreate the events and aftermath of that day, most notably United 93 and World Trade Center. However, neither of those films emerged as serious awards season contenders, both too catastrophic and bleak despite their stories of heroism, not to mention overly grounded in the horrible reality of the day.
Instead, the first 9/11-themed film to get nominated for Best Picture was the utterly shameless Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and it’s revealing that the film identifies with a child who is unable to process the events. When the boy hides under his bed, the film hides under there with him, and you get the feeling that director Stephen Daldry would prefer to keep the covers over our eyes. It’s a 9/11 version of Life is Beautiful, or a Forrest Gump on antidepressants if you prefer. I prefer to vomit.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the final film in Daldry’s unofficial “comatose awards bait” trilogy, following the similarly embalmed The Hours and The Reader. Daldry might as well have been genetically engineered to craft the sort of stodgy prestige pictures that Oscar voters devour, and clearly, his programming told him to exponentially increase the quirk factor here, while simultaneously omitting or obscuring anything that might upset us. He wallows in suffering and tragedy without context, then offers reconciliation and acceptance without comprehension. In Oscar parlance, that’s what’s called a “shoo-in.”
The film is a nonstop barrage of cutesy MacGuffins (I counted at least half a dozen, including a magic key, a hidden “sixth borough” of New York, and a mysterious mute stranger with “Yes” and “No” tattooed on his palms) and meme-ready inspirational quotations. Hackneyed metaphors get piled high, and the film portrays emotional invasiveness and manipulative behavior as noble pursuits (if you’re white). Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth push the idea that caring for troubled children is not just anyone’s responsibility. It’s your responsibility. After all, it takes a village…of slaves.
Twinkly-eyed Tom Hanks and tear-streaked Sandra Bullock headline the picture, but they’re just bait-and-switch, poster-candy sidemen to star Thomas Horn, who plays nine-year-old Oskar Schell. As the film opens, Oskar has just lost his father (Hanks), who was in one of the Twin Towers when they fell, while his mom (Bullock) has seemingly become catatonic with grief.
When he was alive, Oskar’s father was a sort of Manic Pixie Superdad, cranking out elaborate treasure hunts faster than Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. Of course, the film takes place in a magical “movie New York” bathed in a perpetual autumnal glow, the kind of fable metropolis where parents trust the homeless men in Central Park to babysit their nine-year-old children at any hour. However, it’s a storybook New York where 9/11 still happened, which is far more depressing than any of the film’s gutless attempts to wring tears from our eyes.
Oskar has a tastefully unnamed developmental disorder (clinical diagnoses might upset us, remember), and the treasure hunts were his father’s attempts to pry him out of his social shell. When Oskar finds a key hidden in a vase his father purchased just before his death, he assumes it’s the start to his final mission. The key was placed in an envelope with the name Black written on it, so Oskar sets out to visit every single person in New York City named Black, dumping his emotional baggage on their doorstep and demanding entry into their lives. Yes, this is a film where all Blacks (and to be sure, people of color are especially entranced and healed by this kid) get tasked with improving the mood of an affluent white family. Insert your own Uncle Remus jokes here.
While his mother blithely broods at home, Oskar spends months running across New York, meeting with strangers and looking for any clue to the origin of the key. The mute “Renter,” who may have a stronger connection to Oskar’s father than he initially lets on, also joins in the treasure hunt, before leaving and then coming back (and then leaving again and then coming back again).
Eventually, the key turns out to be a false lead, not an answer but a coincidence, and Oskar becomes violently distraught. Bullock calms him down and reveals that it was she who orchestrated the entire adventure. In flashbacks, we see Bullock approach every single person named Black in advance of her son, setting up every encounter, and then pretending to be catatonic while he traipses unsupervised across New York City. She assures him, “I always knew where you were…always.” Paradoxically, this explanation is supposed to make her behavior seem less insane. Oskar seems inexplicably mollified either way, and so he writes a here’s-what-I-learned letter to the Blacks, and we see that the ennobling touch of this little white kid cured their cardboard problems.
Naturally, there will be those who say, “Hey Barnesyard, of course, you were gonna hate a feel-good 9/11 movie starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. You had this film on a tee from the very first frame. You’re one of those cynical leftist media types who hates everything pure and good about this beautiful country. You probably want to put Obama’s face on the Euro and institute sharia law in Oklahoma.”
OK, fair point. But I still say that if the terrorists won, they couldn’t find a better victory dance than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.
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