Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
First introduced as a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an adventurous, heartfelt story about a boy’s journey to cope with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Protagonist Oskar Schell is an eccentric, off-kilter boy given to hope and the expected incomprehension that would come with the loss of a parent, especially under such harsh circumstances. Foer’s sincere narrative was both beautiful and full of whimsy, and the film adaptation was anticipated with excitement and trepidation by its ardent fans, as all novel-made-movies are prone to be. Unfortunately, the onscreen version of this sentimental tale failed to capture the clever, intriguing pull of its literary predecessor.
Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) was fighting against a host of odds from the onset. Aside from respectfully adapting a beloved novel and introducing a young unknown actor as its lead, any plot centered on a historical tragic event comes with its own cache of possible errors. Daldry ambitiously set out to create a gripping film—and made some mistakes along the way.
Though the plot is fast-paced and easy to follow in literary form, the film adaptation lost its momentum early on. The opening scenes focus on the dynamics between Oskar (Tomas Horn) and Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks). The relationship between the two is playful and endearing, revolving around various riddles and hunts Thomas creates for Oskar to solve. Oskar’s mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), is seen as a driving force in the duo’s relationship. Overall, the family appears ideal—before Thomas’ untimely demise on Sept. 11. Following his father’s death, Oskar discovers “clues” he believes will lead him to a treasure his father hid for him.
Given that the son and father had participated in such expeditions prior to Thomas’ death, Oskar’s initial intrigue in discovering this something is reasonable and sweet. Eventually teaming up with “The Renter” (Max von Sydow), a shadowy man Oskar’s grandmother houses, Oskar is continually forced to abandon his social anxieties and hefty list of irrational fears to discover whatever it is his father may have left him. But as the journey continues, the meaning of the “clues” grow murky, failing to drive the story further. What’s meant to be a high-speed search through New York City falls flat, as the story never seems to maintain clarity. Except for a moment of sentimentality at the end, the film is one-note until its last act.
The obvious credit of the film’s success can be given to its notable cast. Hanks, Bullock and Sydow all perform as supporting actors with depth and appeal. Where the plot fails, this all-star cast picks up the slack. Hanks manages to capture the silly, lovable father figure early on. Though his scenes are limited, the audience is able to see why Oskar’s loss is so great. Perhaps Tom Hanks in New York City is just plain fun to watch. Bullock is similarly admirable. Her character is often found sulking in a corner or being overly patient with her unpredictable son. Bullock’s ability to show an array of emotional responses is worthy of recognition, yet feels a little forced at points, drawing on emotion to hasten the narrative. Sydow, in particular, gives an impressive performance, nailing the stoic, silent role (his character never speaks) with ease and nuanced delivery. As his character accompanies Oskar on his journey, the story seems to pick up, giving Oskar a needed sidekick, of sorts, to prompt the story forward. Unfortunately, The Renter’s importance in the overall plot of the story—a role many argued was key to the novel’s success—is barely communicated. This hinders the immersive experience the novel gave its readers and leaves viewers unfamiliar with the book unclear about many aspects of the Schells’ lives.
Thomas Horn’s debut doesn’t prove to be as noteworthy. In his literary form, Oskar struggles with such issues as paranoia, anxiety and depression, but his foibles are pleasant in an odd way, giving the character depth and adult-like characteristics. The film’s Oskar seems more selfish and disenfranchised. Though the psychological infirmities a young boy having lost his father would suffer are understandable, Horn doesn’t transition easily from Oskar’s usual eccentric self to his manic state, seeming to be a hostile character throughout the entire performance. While Oskar’s semi-psychotic behavior in the novel is both endearing and heartbreaking, Horn’s Oskar is too spastic. Had Horn used a wider range of dynamics in his acting, his angry outbursts may have had a stronger impact. Additionally, Horn’s all-too-articulate speaking voice comes across as pretentious, trying too hard to sound like a mature nine-year-old instead of portraying a precocious child who is both too wise and too innocent for his age. Perhaps that’s the risk of employing a novice actor for such a multi-dimensional role. By the end, I missed the Oskar I fell in love with on the pages, wondering what this version did with the winsome character.
As many critics have noted, the film’s depiction of Sept. 11 will be cathartic for some, but unsettling for many. However, my issue with Daldry’s adaptation was that he allowed for the event to characterize the story, rather than the journey of self-discovery Oskar goes through. Foer’s dedication was to Oskar’s path—providing a snapshot into the way man overcomes what he has lost and moves forward, finding love and help from a world with its own joys and struggles. Instead, Daldry overshadows the nuances of the characters by continually highlighting the tragic event to keep the audience emotionally involved. This made Oskar’s expedition too cerebral, especially given his constant narration that seemed to be saying: “Feel this! Think that!” I either felt like I was missing something or being told what I shouldn’t miss.
Where the novel blossomed into an intricate story about an endearing boy overcoming tragedy, the film followed rabbit trails to irrelevant storylines. Had Daldry focused more on the intellectual pace and intricacies of the plot and characters, perhaps the tone of the novel would have held up onscreen. Instead he chose to make September 11th the lead story and depend on a host of supporting actors to drive the narrative. I’ll forego making a negative pun using “extremely” and “incredibly” here, and just advise you to read the book.
Rebekah Renko is currently studying English and Literature inCentral Florida. She can be found on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter (@Becky_Renko).