Surprise Oscar bothering 9/11 centric drama opens in UK cinemas this weekend as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells us the story of one boy trying to get over a huge loss.
This year’s Oscars have shaken things up a little terms of the Best Picture race. For the last couple of years, 10 films have been nominated for Best Picture (up from 5 previously), widely regarded as a result of more populist films such as Wall-E and The Dark Knight not being nominated for Best Picture and the Academy wanting to get braoder interest in the ceremony by appealing to as many as possible. This year’s rules have changed slightly as instead, a nimber of between 5 and 10 films could be nominated, and this depended on how many got at least 5% of “number 1 film” votes from those responsible for nominating them to be in the running in the first place. A few weeks back the nominations were announced and 9 films got in, shutting out some high-profile names but to many people’s surprise letting Stephen Daldry’s new effort Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in, with at least 5% of the nominating party thinking that the Scott Rudin produced effort was worthy of being called the Best Film of the Year. This is something which has somewhat flown in the face of critics with the film currently “Rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes with 45% and Metacritic showing it at 46 also, figures which don’t really suggest Best Picture material. In all fairness though, general critical disdain for Best Picture nominated fare is not a new phenomenon with The Blind Side only sitting at 53 on Metacritic (though it’s technically “Fresh” with 66% on RT) but some have been fairly vocal about the fact that EL&IC is certainly down there as one of the least regarded of Best Picture films of recent memory. It arrives in the UK then with a curious mix of buzz, accepted by Oscar, generally shut out by critics.
Oskar (Thomas Horn) is a quirky little kid with a fast moving brain and a strange way about him who is struggling to cope with the aftermath of his father (Tom Hanks) dying in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks. When he finds a key in an envelope with only the word “black” written on it. Oskar searches New York looking for anyone with any information which could help him discover the secret of the key, hoping it’s part of a game his father used to play with him, and enlists the help of a mute old man The Renter (Max Von Sydow) along the way.
Despite 3 big presences’ in the lead cast, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max Von Sydow, the majority of this film rests on the shoulders of a virtual unknown, a theme actually mirrored in other Oscar films this year, notably Hugo, and in Thomas Horn the film is given both a blessing and a curse, though I’m not entirely sure how much of the “curse” aspect is down to Horn himself. In his quieter moments though that’s not often, Horn has a natural ill-at-ease feeling to his body language and mannerisms which really work well, it does look like this kid is trying and failing spectacularly to cope with the influx of emotional heft being thrown at him and at moments he is genuinely impressive. He is hamstrung though by a number of screenplay and directorial flourishes where he alternates between acting beyond his age, both in having wisdom far in excess what any other kid of his age would, and an intensity to the moments where he loses grip, accompained by fast paced editing and wild gesticulations (behold the terrible ways he acts out numbers for instance) which brought to mind the to-camera monologue Edward Norton performs in The 25th Hour, only there’s quite a lot of it and it’s a bit shit. This isn’t the fault of Horn, he’s only really doing what he’s told and when he’s allowed to be still he is decent, but his running around with a tambourine and asking awkward questions does get rather cloying.
Speaking of cloying, the general spirit of the film is also a fairly large problem. Trying to have its cake and eat it, the film both focuses on the personal tragedy of one family in the aftermath of 9/11 but also wants to show us the spirit of New York but neither aspect works all that well. The scenes on “the worst day” as Oskar calls it are rather uncomfortable in Oskar’s actions (especially considering how one major sin he commits is never actually followed up on to any effect) and also in the way it focuses solely on the death of his father. While it is Oskar’s story, the fact that the film opens up to a wide variety of other characters without referencing once their real hurt involved in the tragedy feels off, as does the fact that every single person Oskar meets on his quest seem to want to help him or are presented in a comedic light in their refusal to. While a sense of hope is required for this film to have the hint of awards to it, the depiction of the people around Oskar feel like we just aren’t in the real world, something the subject matter of the film actually demands.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad here though, certainly not. Max von Sydow was a somewhat surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actor awards at the Oscars and he is in the film for a shorter time than I had certainly expected but his mute old man with a secret is another cracking performance from a man who always brings something to material, no matter the quality of the product surrounding him. He provides a mysterious, endearing and charming air to his character and while his arc is obvious from the earliest moments of his appearance on screen, his lack of words do speak volumes, as cliched as that is. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright also do well in smaller parts, emotional scarring of a different kind very much worn on the both of them and if The Help wasn’t around, I’d see Davis getting Oscar heat with a hurt which feels genuine. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock feel sidelined in comparison to these other performers and that’s really a problem in the end of the day, Hanks just about has enough presence here to show just why he’s such a huge loss to his family, despite the jarringly angelic character he’s given, something which again takes you out of the reality of the piece. Bullock gets the shortest shrift with a charcter who feels chopped up in the edit, only popping up at moments where Oskar needs an extra emotional beat before having a resolution to her arc which feels like a cheat and just one more “make people feel empathic” button push in a film too full of them.
The machinations of the Academy bewilder pretty much everyone but it’s a real brainteaser as to just how even 5% of the group could say this is the best of the crop. While performances are solid for the most part, this is a film where you can see the makers straining to grind the gears of an awards friendly real-life emotional drama and just failing to put the pieces together. Not staggeringly offensive in any way but terminally uninspiring, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close may be an Best Picture nominee but in terms of films with anything to actually say, it ranks low and that may be its worst crime of all.