(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 4 March 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/sentimental-but-effective)
Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis
Director: Stephen Daldry
Rating: 4 stars
I’m embarrassed to say it, but I was wiping my eyes through most of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. One can’t escape hearing something about an Oscar-nominated film – and I thought it was a “9/11 drama” involving an autistic boy. Turns out it has more to do with parent-child relationships than 9/11, and the boy is a bright kid who may have Asperger’s.
The opening lines of the film are dark – a child with bluer-than-blue eyes fancies inverted skyscrapers, housing a whole dead world under the living one, when cemeteries run out of space. We could take lifts to the bowels of the earth to visit dead relatives. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is angry that his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was given a “pretend funeral, like a goldfish” by his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock). The father-son relationship unfolds in flashback, as Oskar goes about one final task he believes his father has set him.
Hanks makes you well up ten minutes into the film – he’s the kind of father and husband everyone wants. He has adult conversations with his son, spouts declarations of love to his smiling wife, and supplies his mother (Zoe Caldwell) and son with walkie-talkies for secret communication.
The film is as much about Oskar’s bond with his father as disconnect with his mother. She was the one who looked on fondly as Thomas and he came up with “reconnaissance missions” that were wild-goose chases – like finding the missing sixth borough of New York. And she’s the one who looks on helplessly as Oskar lies about where he’s headed, and scours the city for the lock to a key he has found in his father’s closet.
The story forges unlikely coincidences from Oskar’s encounters. His relationship with his grandmother’s tenant (Max von Sydow), Stan the Doorman (John Goodman) and a stranger, Abby Black (Viola Davis), turn into significant sub-plots.
It would be easy to view this film as a saccharine family drama, and point out its flaws – 14-year-old Horn shouldn’t ideally play a 9-year-old, a 9-year-old shouldn’t run unescorted around New York, it doesn’t make sense for a jeweller to have a morning meeting at the WTC, there are contrived cinematic moments. But, in the hands of director Stephen Daldry and screenplay-writer Eric Roth, it becomes an allegorical tale of dealing with deaths that don’t make sense, and the talented cast handles it wonderfully.
The Verdict: When a film draws a viewer in so completely, it’s irrelevant that the storyline teeters towards maudlin.