Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros., PG-13)

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film extremely-loud smI can’t say that I can get too upset about this awful chunk of treacle, aside from the fact that it will probably put a lot of people off of reading the book.

film extremely-loud lg

Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a pretty thoroughly excellent work, but it’s a total tightrope act. It’s an emotional story told from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy who lost his father to 9/11, and the book always seems on the verge of being overly cloying, cute, easy, grating, and a million other things, but it never quite falls into those traps. Most of its success comes from Foer’s rendering of the young boy, Oskar Schell. The voice is very believable compared to the reality of speaking to children, and Oskar is often as truthfully frustrating and/or irritating as real children generally are. This might sound like a fault, but in fact it’s a compliment: Foer hits just the right balance, where if you had asked me beforehand I would have thought that there was no right balance. His Oskar is a truly three-dimensional child, which is rare in most adult fiction.

Given how precarious its position, I was frightened when I heard that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was being made into a movie. Worse still was when I saw the filmmakers behind it, a lot of whom I don’t like: director Stephen Daldry (who has never made a feature film and not been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and yet he has not made one good film: Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader); Sandra Bullock (barf) as Oskar’s widowed mother Linda; and screenwriter Eric Roth (double barf—King of Manipulation himself, what with Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The kid who plays Oskar, Thomas Horn, was unfamiliar to me, but apparently he was discovered as the winner of Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!—while cool, does that make a good actor? Meanwhile, the large supporting cast is by and large composed of people I actually like: Tom Hanks plays Oskar’s dad Thomas in flashbacks; Max von Sydow is a mysterious neighbor of Oskar’s; John Goodman is the doorman; and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright turn up along the way, among others.

How the novel and film come to involve a pretty high number of secondary characters in what seems like it would be a chamber piece is this: Oskar and his father would often play mystery/scavenger hunt-type games when his father was still alive. Upon Thomas’s death, Oskar finds a key tucked away amongst his effects in an envelope labeled only “Black.” This, of course, has Oskar believing that it was one last scavenger hunt Thomas was planning, and he sets out to find what lock the key fits and what the meaning of the cryptic label “Black” is. He concludes almost right away that “Black” is someone’s last name who is affiliated with the key, and most of the film has Oskar tracking down people across New York City with that name to see if they know anything about it—that’s where most of those other characters factor in.

As is not remotely surprising, the movie gets wrong everything the book got right. Here, Oskar is at once too precious and too grating, two things Foer never let him be in the book, and young Thomas Horn vacillates wildly between underplaying scenes and then emoting all over the place for the next. The best supporting character in the book, and one of the biggest at that, is reduced to one second of screen time in the movie, and the unashamedly moving ending of the book here is changed to be more obvious, more manipulative, and less powerful. To be frank, the ending of the book is rather manipulative, but here it’s manipulative in a more glaring and insulting way.

I would have liked to have been surprised by this movie, as I truly do like the book, but the book, while cinematic, is close to unfilmable given how close it always seems to going off in the wrong direction. In that regard, I can’t say that I can get too upset about this awful chunk of treacle, aside from the fact that it will probably put a lot of people off of reading the book. | Pete Timmermann

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