Friday, January 20, 2012

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

Review by Matt Finley

"A lot of folks have an adverse reaction to assertive tearjerkers, but I think a little concerted emotional manipulation in film can be a good thing. After all, comedies depend on road-tested tactics - and the subversion thereof - to dead-center our funny bones. Why not allow for the same considered hand when it comes to the plucking of heart strings." I said this to myself as I tried to objectively evaluate Stephen Daldry’s (THE READER) EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, a film that's plucking is more akin to two hours of Hendrix sawing away at your heart string with his teeth, and then lighting it on fire. Not even the real Hendrix though... Robot Hendrix. 9/11, autism, single motherhood - it's programmed to wail on the ticker, but despite all its classic emotional algorithms, the machine itself - the delivery device - is poorly assembled, unbearably clunky, and turned up to a deafeningly saccharine 11.
In telling the story of precocious 9-year-old Oskar's (Thomas Horn) quest to find the lock that fits a mysterious, unlabelled key he discovers in his late father's (Tom Hanks) closet a year after his dad perishes in the World Trade Center attack, the film travels New York City, borough to borough, mapping out a metropolis’ worth of loss, faith, hope and, (because the movie harbors indie flick pretensions) quirk. There's our Aspergerish lead, who spouts factoids and always has a tambourine handy to shake away neuroses and phobias that have become crushingly acute in the wake of 9/11; His grandma's mysterious tenant,The Renter (Max von Sydow), a mute who communicates using "yes" and "no" tattoos on his hands; the father-in-flashback, who spins wild yarns about a lost sixth borough. Oh, and Sandra Bullock plays his mom, whose depressive moping gives way to a third-act reveal that's as heartwarming as it is illogically sappy.

I don’t blame the actors; everyone pulls their weight, from the underused John Goodman to the affable-to-a-fault Hanks to the softly stern von Sydow. (I hate to harp on child actors, so let’s just say that Horn’s two-pistol arsenal of Monotone and Shrilly Tantrum were cribbed from Daldry’s cheat sheet for depicting low-spectrum autism). And I don’t necessarily mind quirks or art house preciousness… the problem with EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE is that it creates a world of whimsical, sometimes larger than life characters (an effect that's only heightened by Oskar's alternately poetical and smart-alecky narration) and throws them tumbling into the very real grief at the heart of the darkest moments of our national psyche. I get it - it's meant to show how, in a matter moments, real folks, with real lives and real Miranda July-worthy idiosyncrasies, can be completely knocked off their emotional axes and find themselves lost in a new world not to suited to their tambourine waving and Lipnickian trivia vomit.

And it might have worked if the characters ever felt truly lost.

Unfortunately, there are so many minor plots – the key, The Renter’s true identity, a scavenger hunt for proof of the sixth borough – all of them inching methodically forward toward prescribed epiphanies, that the chaos and disorder that make these lives feel relatable are stabbed lifeless by the ever northward-pointing compass of over-workshopped narrative. I should spend the movie in desperate, doubtful hope of the miracle I, as a human being, believe these emotionally marooned people deserve, not in nodding expectation of the miracle I, as a moviegoer, know these characters will receive. But I just couldn’t shake the overwhelming knowledge that I was watching a scripted world. That’s without even mentioning the shoddy character work Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (FORREST GUMP and, ugh, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) pull over on us while keeping our eyes on a shiny key.

With so many storylines and flashbacks and head-bonking, upper case 'P' Poignant moments, the quirk and the reality get muddled - the emotions become caricatures of themselves. The movie becomes cartoonishly sad. Sure, I think a little concerted emotional manipulation in film can be a good thing. And I know folks who enjoy the idea of laughter so much, they’ll stick it out for even the most exhausting, try-too-hard comedies. And I’m sure there are folks who enjoy the safe catharsis of tears wrought from fiction, no matter the quality. As it is, volumetrically speaking, the easy tears evoked by EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE could fill an ocean; Cinematically speaking, it’s frustratingly shallow. (1 1/2 out of 4 Stars)

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