Boy Meets World Trade Center: Extremely Bad & Incredibly Nominated

(Films discussed in this post: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Rango, Submarine.)

Is Oscar gay?

I think so. ‘Cause sorry, ladies — the Academy sure loves boys.

(Plus, he’s so shiny!)

This year’s most surprising Best Picture nominee was Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Not a total shocker, mind you — it stars previous winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, and is directed by Academy-friendly Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), so it has the pedigree, at least. But Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close seemed like an also-ran since it generated mostly negative reviews, popped up on several year-end “Worst” lists, has especially been decried in New York City as offensive, and failed to make much of an impact at the box office despite its star power.

So what gives?

Well, it’s an uplifting story about a tragic event that, in real life, is just incredibly depressing, and it stars a cute little kid. Okay? Let’s look at the other Best Picture nominees: War Horse? A boy and his horse. Hugo? A boy and his automaton. The Tree Of Life? A boy and his entire childhood and how it relates to the creation of the universe. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close fits right in — it’s about a boy and his national tragedy.Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about Oskar, a precocious (to put it mildly) child who loses his father in the September 11 terrorist attacks. His father, who was fond of constructing elaborate (but cute!) lies that send a nine-year-old wandering around Central Park alone, striking up conversations with the homeless, leaves a message on the family answering machine just before the towers fall. One year later, Oskar goes poking around in his dad’s closet, finds a hidden key, and because the envelope says “Black” on it, decides to find every single person with the last name Black in New York City and ask them if they knew his father, and what this key might unlock. Oh, and he walks… everywhere… because he’s afraid of trains, and carries a tambourine everywhere he goes. Hundreds of people named Black decide to go along with this, and his mother is apparently fine letting this child wander out to the depths of Brooklyn and Queens and such alone in post-9/11 New York. Eventually, Oskar bullies an old mute man (Max Von Sydow) into coming along with him, and wouldn’t you know it, his parents were killed in a war atrocity, too! That’s… convenient. Anyway, I won’t spoil the “ending,” but suffice to say it finds a way to make all of the above ten times more implausible than it already was. (The Academy seems to have not noticed that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the exact same movie as Hugo, only infinitely worse — a plucky rascal on an unlikely mission to unravel the mystery of a cryptic clue left behind by his dead father, touching the life of a miserably sad old man along the way.)

My jaw dropped constantly while watching Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and not in a good way. I could hardly believe this was a mainstream Hollywood movie that so many talented, successful people were involved in. What were they thinking? It’s not necessarily “too soon” for Hollywood to tackle 9/11. Paul Greengrass did it brilliantly six years ago with United 93, a movie that dealt with this event in all the right ways and none of the wrong ones. Oscar Stone’s World Trade Center was a misstep, but for reasons having little to do with September 11. Even 2011′s mixed bag A Little Help proved you can have some fun at the expense of 9/11 as long as people act appropriately outraged by the end of the movie. Were Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close merely about a boy whose father died, say, in a car accident, it would fail very conventionally and probably be swiftly forgotten. But because it tackles September 11, it crumbles under the weight of its own ambition.Why is this movie about 9/11, anyway? Aside from Oskar, the characters seem to move on from it immediately, more concerned with their own unrelated griefs. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not even attempt to recreate the mood of post 9/11 America the way, say, Take Shelter does, in its own sly way. There’s no sense of collective fear or paranoia or even mourning. Instead, Daldry seems content to use the imagery of 9/11 — bodies hurtling out of the sky, people staring out of office building at the burning towers — to do his job for him, then sidesteps actually dealing with the tragedy. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has absolutely nothing of note to say about 9/11. It attempts to provide catharsis without doing any of the work; it’s all beginning and ending, with the middle skimmed over in montages of Oskar wordlessly meeting with the various Blacks. The casting of these “colorful” characters, most of whom get one line at best, is painful in contrast to the beautiful movie stars who populate the rest of the movie. You can almost hear the casting directors going through the headshots — “Well, we’ve already got a black lady, a large group of Chinese people, some blue-collar Italians, and a fat Pacific Islander… hey, how about someone transgender?” These poor day players smile like they’re in a car insurance commercial; they’re too unique and diverse and average to actually speak in the movie, but by playing Alexander Desplat’s pushy score over images of them laughing or crying, Daldry reassures that everything is okay — because people of all walks of life are perfectly fine about 9/11. Now let’s get back to seeing how those gorgeous movie stars are coping.

Most of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close‘s problems, however, have nothing to do with the fact that it borrows a recent terrorist attack to add import to an otherwise flat, wholly unremarkable story. Screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) seems ill-equipped to tell this story from the point-of-view of a child, resulting in a predictably non-linear structure that doesn’t work because the flashbacks dealing with 9/11 are exponentially more interesting than the story going forward. And Daldry makes no attempt to frame this story as if it’s actually coming to us from nine-year-old Oskar’s perspective, so that we might actually buy all the many contrivances. When Oskar is afraid, Daldry doesn’t make us feel afraid — he just shows Oskar hiding under a bed. When Oskar is angry, he doesn’t make us feel angry — he depicts Oskar having a meltdown. But we’re always on the outside, looking at Oskar, rather than experiencing this story through him. Daldry seems completely clueless as to how to use the camera to get us to identify with this child; apart from a new flourishes, it’s generic, by-the-numbers direction that isn’t specific to this character or this story. I can imagine this all worked in Foer’s book reasonably well, because books can get away with so much more than movies can. Prose can put us in the mind of a nine-year-old boy and let us see the world from his perspective, but this movie attempts to present the world “as is,” realistically — and fails astoundingly. Almost nothing about this movie is plausible, which does not mesh well with an all-too-real event like 9/11, still so fresh in our minds.
Though some of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close‘s most thought-provoking bits (there are a few) are obviously taken from the book, on the whole, both narration and dialogue consist of a lot of thudding exposition attempting to make sense of Oskar’s motivations (which make no sense regardless). His constant referral to September 11 as “the Worst Day” is cringe-inducing when spoken aloud. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is also fond of delivering information in monologues shouted at the top of Oskar’s lungs; the second time, he is literally standing in the street shouting to no one, explaining why he loves his father. The first is even more awkward (and unintentionally hilarious) — it’s Oskar literally shouting the entire plot of the movie at Max Von Sydow moments after they meet, accompanied by contrived hand gestures — after which the mute old man merely holds up a piece of paper reading: “I’m tired. I go to bed.” (My thoughts exactly.)

Yep. Oskar is truly one of the most irritating screen characters I can remember ever seeing in a movie. To paraphrase the title, he’s extremely loud and incredibly annoying. Should I give him a pass just because it’s mentioned that he might have Asperger’s? Well, I’m not going to. He’s a brat with no rhyme or reason to his behavior. Oskar screams at just about everyone, barges into strangers’ homes demanding help with his insane mission, and lies frequently, perhaps pathologically. In the worst of many temper tantrums, he starts destroying a stranger’s business as everyone just watches with an, “Aw, poor kid” look on their faces. Why anyone helps him at all is beyond me. He’s rude and kind of creepy. Oskar supposedly afraid of things like loud noises, crossing bridges, and riding the subway, but he has no issue with wandering around the five boroughs of New York alone, going into the homes of strangers, including one very frightening cross-dresser. (His parents did one thing right, at least, and clearly never showed him Silence Of The Lambs.)As written, her is a walking contradiction and a conundrum, and I’m sorry to say that Thomas Horn’s performance doesn’t do the script many favors. Some have praised his performance — he even won a Critic’s Choice Award for “Best Young Actor,” beating out Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, Asa Butterfirled’s Hugo, and The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley. (Jesus.) I don’t know why, though. Horn seems to have studied at the Elizabeth Berekely School Of (Over-)Acting, for Oskar is most reminiscent of Showgirls‘ Nomi. Like her, Oskar throws unmotivated hissy fits and, for no reason, constantly seems angry; yes, he’s grappling with the death of his father, but the way he’s doing it is so annoying. We’re meant to feel sorry for him and sympathize, but why should we?

There are some moments in which Horn is quite good, and I hate to pick on such a young actor. Much of his dialogue is impossible for any child (or adult) performer to utter convincingly. But boy, oh boy. When Oskar needs to convey that he doesn’t want to hear something, Horn clamps his hands over his ears. When he’s afraid, he cowers under the bed. When he’s upset, he starts throwing or breaking things. Maybe it’s the script, or the direction, or a bad performance. Most likely, a trifecta of all three. One moment, he’s lashing out at someone for no reason, the next he’s as precocious as can be, like a quirky child genius who wandered into The Reader from the set of a nearby Wes Anderson movie, complete with tambourine. It’s The Royal Tenenbaums meets United 93!

Hey, Stephen Daldry — you want to know what two things don’t go together? “Quirky” and “historic tragedy.”This year’s Oscar nominee Viola Davis pops up randomly as one of the Blacks (pun is not my fault), the only one given significant screen time. I’d mention that she and a character played by Jeffrey Wright suffer from that old, offensive trope that kind, flawless black people in such movies exist solely to help white people solve their problems for no reason other than that they’re kind, flawless, black, and have got nothing better to do — except I think Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an equal-opportunity offender. (But considering her other 2011 role in The Help, Davis really needs to talk to her agent about getting her a part that isn’t all about helping out some pushy Caucasian.)

And let me talk about Jeffrey Wright for a second, if I can, while still being vague enough about the ending to avoid spoilers. Why does this film’s climactic moment (set, apparently, inside an aquarium?) center around a character we’ve never met before? Do we need two surrogate father figures in this movie? Do both surrogate father figures also need to have lost their fathers? And seriously — are we meant to believe that this meticulous little boy who remaps all of New York in a complex, coded system could have avoided a three-year- endeavor to interview hundreds of people if he had just unfolded the piece of paper that started all this to begin with? Why, for the love of God, did he not read the whole paper? For a movie so concerned with all these Blacks, we actually spend very little time with them, and the most effective storyline (involving Von Sydow) is irrelevant to the main plot. It’s as if Roth didn’t buy this whole storyline, either, and tried to undermine it by distracting us with other characters’ subplots.But it’s John Goodman who has the most pointless role. A lot of fun in another Best Picture nominee, The Artist, he’s useless here,  given the thankless task of staring at the breaking news of the terrorist attacks on TV. The line he’s given? “This is terrible.” (That’s about the most profound thought this movie has about 9/11.) The moment is a little meta-though — because as John Goodman was staring at a TV set in mock-horror muttering, “This is terrible,” I was watching Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doing the exact same thing. (James Gandolfini, credited in the trailer, was actually cut entirely out of the movie. Lucky bastard.)

There are scattered strong moments in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, such as scenes featuring Oskar with “The Renter” played by Von Sydow, who received a somewhat surprising Oscar nod that edged out Drive favorite Albert Brooks. But to be fair, Von Sydow, at least, is the best character here. Bullock is as good as she can be as an absentee mother figure, even if the “twist” at the end doesn’t make up for the fact that she’s essentially laying around doing nothing while her son is hanging out alone with hundreds of strangers and self-mutilating. Hanks is fine, I guess, but he’s stuck playing one of those impossible “perfect father” types that only exist in movies. (How many dads do you know that spent all their time hiding little clues throughout New York City for their sons to find, telling them that the city used to have six boroughs but one disappeared mysteriously, and, son, why don’t you go waste hours wandering around Central Park looking for it?) To me, this kind of parenting is actually just irritating, but maybe a certain kind of youngster would find it appealing.But for everything that’s right about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, there is much more that goes so, so wrong. The plot is rife with problems large and small, mostly of the logic variety, plaguing nearly every scene. For example: if the story is told entirely from Oskar’s point of view, why do we get a random scene from Sandra Bullock’s perpective in the middle of the movie as she receives a call from her soon-to-be-deceased husband? It’s actually one of the strongest scenes in the movie, and it’s clear that Daldry included it because you need “That Big 9/11 Scene” to deal with the tragedy head-on, but it doesn’t belong here. Oskar’s not in it, and this is his story. He’s narrating it. You can’t just cut to an event he wasn’t involved in and doesn’t know about. Overall, the movie’s use of September 11 as a dramatic element is only marginally offensive; it’s essentially the same gambit played by Life Is Beautiful“let’s turn the deaths of scores of innocent people into a game! whee!” — but with a lot less distance and time for healing. The recurring CGI effects of Tom Hanks plummeting to his death in slow-motion are, I’d argue, in poor taste, but beyond that, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close misses making much of an impact altogether — better, I suppose, than making an unfavorable, off-putting, exploitative one. (See Gus Van Sant’s Columbine revamp Elephant.)

I’m being a bit glib, I know, because I’m sure Roth and Daldry & co. were aiming for more than actually came across on-screen, but Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does not succeed at getting us to care what fucking lock in New York City this fucking random key opens. Of all the thousands of New York lives this tragedy touched, this has got to be the very least interesting problem a movie could deal with. (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close shares this problem with Hugo, actually — in that the central “mystery” the film spends so much screen time on is the least interesting angle about it.) We touch on a national tragedy in which thousands of people are killed, and the big happy ending is that the protagonist overcomes his fear of sitting on a fucking swing? Ohhh, Academy. You’ve got to be kidding.

The fact that this movie is nominated for Best Picture doesn’t just blow my mind — it crashes two planes into it.And speaking of Wes Anderson (I swear, I mentioned him up there somewhere), the Quirkmeister’s been absent from cinemas in 2011 in name only. But there are a few filmmakers who have attempted to carry his twee torch until his illustrious return with Moonrise Kingdom.

One such filmmaker is Richard Ayoade, a British comedian making his debut feature. If Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close seems to borrow, Ayoade’s Submarine flat-out steals them. It’s unclear to what degree Submarine is trying to be an homage to Anderson and to what degree it is trying to be its own movie, but it seems impossible that the many similarities are entirely coincidental. The story concerns precocious 15-year-old Oliver Tate, who is, like all boys in movies at this age, peculiarly obsessed with a girl he goes to school with. The girl in question is Jordana Bevan, who always wears the same red coat — she’s pretty enough, I guess, but Oliver’s preoccupation with her feels particularly random. Which is probably the point. Unlike in most coming-of-age tales, though, Oliver actually does get the girl quite early in the movie, and the story becomes about how his new relationship suffers once Oliver begins to suspect that his parents’ marriage is falling apart. He suspects his mother (Sally Hawkins) of cheating on his dad (Noah Taylor) with her oddball ex-boyfriend (Paddy Considine).

Submarine is based on a book by Joe Dunthorne, but still, the pacing feels off. Oliver and Jordana get together so soon that our interest in them as a couple peters out even before they start having problems. And the parents come into the story rather late in the game. As told through Oliver’s point of view with plenty of clever voice-over narration (take note, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, on subjective storytelling), the first half hour or so is pretty marvelous, with plenty of filmmaking flourishes to keep us engaged. But after awhile, we grow tired of this rather shallow, self-centered protagonist, since most of the people around him seem to have more depth and humanity. We’re watching an emotional story through the eyes of someone who is not very emotional, so the Wes Anderson-ness of it all starts to feel gimmicky, and the rather thin storyline can’t sustain the movie’s running time. Submarine worked its modest charms on me for awhile, but long before it was over, I grew tired of it. Still, there are pleasures to be had, particularly in the first act, and the cast is game. And as the world discovered in 2009′s delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s brand of whimsy lends itself best to animated stories in which being cute and precocious is acceptable, rather than off-putting. Perhaps this year’s closest approximation to that is Gore Verbinski’s Rango, the story of a pet gecko who gets lost in the desert and stumbles upon a small town populated by some truly bizarre creatures who are concerned about their town’s water supply. Though he’s actually quite the coward, the gecko decides to “camouflage” himself as a badass. The filmmaking has a distinct Western flavor and also takes a page from Chinatown in its villain character — and the Mariachi band of owls who narrate the story are, pardon the pun, a hoot.

It may seem unfair to spend so long dressing down a disaster like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and then spend virtually no time at all praising a much better one like Rango, but with an animated film like this, it’s best to watch it for yourself and allow it to charm you. Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar (and the frontrunner to win, thanks to a Spielberg snub), Rango features a talented roster of voices including Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, and Abigail Bresli, and some of the most captivatingly ugly creature design you’re likely to see in a movie for quite some time. The animation is superb, and beautiful in its own weird way. It might be the crispest and most textured computer-animated feature of all time. There’s so much detail, it’s astounding. And the film contains a haunting moment featuring our gecko hero walking across a street at night (to say more would ruin it).

Funny how a movie like Rango can evoke more genuine emotion than a film that deals with a colossal national tragedy, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’ll gladly take my quirk and contrivance with bright colors, anthropomorphic creatures, and no mention of 9/11, thank you.

*

Rango:A lot more entertaining than a Geico commercial.

Submarine: Surface-level fun.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: A train wreck of a movie. (Or should I say plane crash?)

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