There should be a list somewhere of books that should never be adapted to film. While plenty of literature can make the leap from page to screen without much or any alteration, far more often a book is a book for a reason. Because while a book allows you to reach an emotional conclusion on your own, a movie forces you towards one. Which is unquestionably the case with Jonathan Safran Foer‘s 2005 novel; a narrative that, at a glance, is vibrant in the same way as a Little Miss Sunshine, with a host of quirky characters and a comical, yet emotionally-resonant tone. In a host of other ways however, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a story far more inclined towards the written word than the big screen, and has pulled an Oscar nomination mostly on the weight of its dramatically moving and frustratingly manipulative approach.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is different; the kind of kid who’d rather spend time with his father than people his own age. Then again, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) is not the average father, eagerly passing along to his brilliantly autistic son the wonders of the world. Thomas and Oskar play a game called Reconnaissance Expedition, wherein Thomas leaves Oskar clues that will force him into the world and out of his comfort zone. But when Thomas dies on September 11th, Oskar is left alone with his far more grounded mother Linda (Sandra Bullock), unable to logically process a world that can take a boy’s father out of the blue. Two years after his death, Oskar finds a key in Thomas’ closet and, believing that the key is a posthumous clue from his father, sets out on a search through the The City for the lock it belongs to.
It’s important to understand that, while certainly an inappropriate choice for Best Picture of the year, Extremely Loud is not strictly a bad film. It struggles mightily with the transition from print to celluloid, and is hurt by some generally sloppy filmmaking, but it does a few things very well indeed. On display in Director Stephen Daldry‘s fourth feature film, particularly towards the end, is an undeniably authentic view of humanity. Daldry takes the more insular story of Oskar and his journey, and builds a bridge to the universal “Us” that might just bring tears to your eyes. He begins this journey in an overtly devious way, taking advantage of the ubiquitous trauma of 9/11 to get our lips quivering, which is a terrible choice. Repeat: a terrible choice. But once the film moves past its heavy handed imitation of this country’s darkest day, and into the much truer (and less manipulative) empathy of a group of New York strangers doing their best to help one boy who lost his father, it becomes clear exactly what the Academy was responding to.
Unfortunately, the problems they overlooked are not inconsiderable, and account for an all-around awkward transition from print to film. The tone of Safran Foer’s novel, though interested in sentiment, was not overtly sentimental in the way that the film is, and this distinction is the difference between the story working and the story falling flat. Patently sentimentalizing 9/11 is, as I’ve said, a pretty terrible idea. Safran Foer’s response to this was to desensitize his main character, having him view the world as a series of facts and figures. And while this character trait is maintained in Stephen Daldry’s version, there’s a pretty spectacular difference between first person (found in the book) and third person (found in the film). The result is a film in which the tone doesn’t match the main character. Building on this central dilemma is the performance of Thomas Horn. Now, Thomas Horn is a literal newcomer, and he does his absolute best in the role of Oskar, but asking ANY child actor to do justice to this role was foolish, as there’s just too much to it. Oskar is a Woody Allen-esque math professor trapped in an 8-year-old’s body, who spends all of two movie hours doing everything within his power to understand something as powerfully complex as grief, all the while maintaining a pretty impressive collection of neurosis and compulsions. And it’s not as if Horn can hide behind the talented window dressing of Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Max Von Sydow–especially not Hanks, who gives one of the weaker and more caricatured performances of his career–because Oskar is the focal point of the film from beginning to end. In a series of missteps, Daldry’s biggest was undoubtedly the notion that there’s a kid somewhere who could actually handle this role.
It’s not a shock to hear that the Academy rarely hits on every pick, but this does seem like a particularly egregious choice. In modifying the rules to allow for 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees, problems such as this one were supposed to be solved. ONLY nominate the films that are TRULY worthy of Best Picture, and if we don’t have ten, then we don’t have ten. Simple. Yet somehow, in a year with some pretty remarkable variety in the theater, the annoyingly familiar Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close wormed it’s way into a Best Picture nomination. It’s not fair to judge a film based on its undeserved acclamation, and I’ve tried my best not to do that here, but there’s a point where it becomes necessary to do whatever you can to keep the bar where it ought to be. While Extremely Loud surely has an audience ready to fall in love with it, it is definitively less than a number of films released in 2011, and a clear indication of the obsolescence becoming more and more familiar in the Academy.