Saturday 28 January 2012

Movie Review: Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (2011)

A child's journey to discover the meaning of life and death in the wake of a devastating tragedy, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close gently tugs on all the right strings. It may be at times too laden with obvious symbolism, but the film has its heart in the right place and steers a course to an ending that is more wisely enlightened than simplistically happy.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a young boy living in New York City with his parents Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Linda (Sandra Bullock). Extremely smart but with some symptoms of Asperger syndrome, Oskar enjoys an especially close relationship with his Dad, who keeps him engaged in science and motivated to explore his surrounding world with a series of quests.

It's a devastating loss for Oskar when Thomas dies at the World Trade Center in the attacks of September 11, 2001. One year later he finds a key among Thomas' belongings in an envelope labelled "Black", and as a way to keep the memory of his Dad alive, Oskar creates a quest for himself to find the correct New York family with the surname Black to uncover the key's purpose. Along the way Oskar is joined on his adventure by a mute old man (Max von Sydow) who eventually reveals himself to be Thomas' estranged Dad. Oskar and his grandfather form a strained bond, as the mystery of the key moves towards resolution and Linda proves to be more resourceful than Oskar could have imagined.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close does not economize on the heavy-handed symbolism. The search for the key to life begins with a physical key, and the coincidence of Oskar finding the right Black family is loaded with the impossible. The key does prove to be a blatant enabler of understanding between father and son, although not in the way that Oskar had hoped. And in a final serving of dense syrup, writer Eric Roth cannot resist a physical message passing from Thomas to Oskar. Thomas does not return from the dead to personally interact with his son, but Oskar gets to experience the next best thing via a Central Park denouement.

Despite the lack of subtlety, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close finds a winning combination of innocence and pathos. Oskar's quest to extend the extraordinary bond with his father starts with a wistful tone and can only head in the direction of a victory for the soul disguised as a worldly defeat. Director Stephen Daldry keeps a firm grip on what matters: Oskar will not find the answers that he is seeking, but he will learn that some questions have no obvious explanation, and that adults deal with grief, loss, and love in much the same way that he does.

Thomas Horn mixes precociousness with anxiety to create a memorable Oskar. Horn celebrates Oskar's quirkiness and fears as much as his intelligence and strength to create a believably well-rounded child character. Max von Sydow is haunting and funny as the mute grandpa, filling a hole in Oskar's life and serving up a lesson that other cities, like Dresden, have also suffered through extremely loud traumas. The wounds last a lifetime.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock have relatively small and one-dimensional roles, Hanks as the perpetually optimistic Thomas and Bullock as the devastated Linda unable to replace the void in Oskar's life caused by Thomas' death. They are both competent without stretching.

By distilling the tragedy of September 11 down to the agony of a single child, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close succeeds in personalizing a mammoth act of destruction. Of course the narrative works its way to the road to recovery, but it does so without taking short-cuts. Oskar, Linda, and the rest of New York City will learn to manage the searing pain due to the losses of that day, but the scars are never going away.

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