I absolutely love the Oscars, and despite the cries of many naysayers, I believe they are overall a very good thing for film artistry and industry. As tone-setters and taste arbiters, they have enormous influence over how and when movies get made. This ability is not without a downside, though. It may have scored a Best Picture nomination, but Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as a piece of art is a victim of the Academy process.
The framework is there for the cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s incredible novel to be equally as compelling and emotionally moving. But Daldry, who was still shooting a new scene for the movie on December 1 (yes, just weeks before the movie opened!), leaves us with merely a glimpse of what could have been. He shows us how much potential the movie has, yet we are constantly left seeing the rough edges that should have been ironed out in post-production. Tonally, it has some very rough swings, too. If he had taken a few more months, really wrestled with the material, and released it in 2012, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” would have been a deserving Best Picture nominee – and dare I say it, a formidable threat to be a winner.
At a certain point, though, I have to stop mourning a movie that doesn’t exist. Daldry made the movie that he made, and it does have some remarkable moments sprinkled sporadically throughout that really hit home. He gets fine performances out of Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow; Thomas Horn has flashes of brilliance every now and then, but his precociousness often errs towards the side of a grating whine. Nevertheless, there were a number of scenes that just don’t work as well as they should, and knowing the source novel, I would periodically cringe.
Still, the mere fact that its discussion of 9/11 still hurts means that our wound is still gaping and maybe even festering. Its frank depiction of a haunting day that still lingers in the collective mind of a nation points to an important realization that we all must come to: that day changed everything, and we must come to terms with the fact that we can never return to September 10, 2001. This emotional journey is what Oskar Schell (Horn) embarks on over the course of the movie, attempting a fantastic adventure across New York with a mute old man (von Sydow) to keep the memory of his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) alive.
His quest to find the lock that fits a mysterious key left behind by his dad allows him to meet a diverse crowd, each struggling with the post-9/11 realities in their own way. Daldry’s true masterstroke of the movie comes in these brief glimpses that provide a broad swath of American experience. It’s honest, often brutally so, but this is what is necessary to allow us to live again. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, nor can we live in naive ignorance. We have to move on, and the message of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” as one of the first true Hollywood attempts to really get down in the mud with the pain of 9/11, speaks to every American.
While it may speak to all of us, it comes at the cost of speaking through one of us. Oskar Schell was one of my favorite literary protagonists – a kid with a virtuosic sense of imagination who was full of quirks and personality. The book affected me because in 2001, I was Oskar, coming to terms with the existence of true evil and the pain of loss. Daldry loses the idiosyncrasy and the unique perspective in his ironing out of the story to fit an Oscar-acceptable mold. He often chooses hokey sentimentalism, perfectly accompanied by a cloying Alexandre Desplat score, over the eccentric. Maybe one day, we will get a director’s cut that brings to life all the life and oddity of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book. However, such is probably just as wishful thinking as returning to September 10. B /