Deborah Ross

Terribly long & awfully sentimental

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Unless I am Extremely Dim & Incredibly Thick, which is always a possibility — you think I don’t know? I do — this Stephen Daldry adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close just doesn’t seen to have any point, and is sentimental and banal as well as very, very long (or so it seemed). It may have worked as a book — I can’t say; I never read it — but as a film it’s a trial.

Why has it been Oscar-nominated in the Best Picture category? No idea, although I would suggest it caters to America’s idea of itself as a nation that can triumph over anything, including 9/11, and to the notion that all scars can always be healed, which I’m thinking is patently trite nonsense. Would you make a film about the Holocaust in this spirit, for example? Could you? Would you want to? I think these are reasonable questions although, being Extremely Dim & Incredibly Thick, it may, of course, strike you as otherwise. I’m just putting all this out there, for your consideration, as they say. I won’t blame you if you dismiss it.

Our hero is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an 11-year-old boy who is super-bright and super-articulate but registers somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, so finds social situations difficult and awkward. Oskar makes sense of his life via rules, numbers, random facts, but mostly never stops talking. (‘Oh, for an hour of Herod,’ as my grandmother used to say.) Anyway, Oskar’s father, Thomas, died on 9/11, which is a particular shame because, as we see in flashbacks, Thomas was The World’s Greatest Dad (as played by Tom Hanks, naturally).

Oskar’s father really got Oskar, spending countless hours with him and inventing all sorts of stories and mind games to keep Oskar amused, and helping him with his phobias, which range from bridges and public transport to the swings in Central Park. His mother Linda (a gentle Sandra Bullock) is the parent Oskar would have chosen to die, as he tells her at one point, but she may not be as absent and neglectful as she first appears. He also has a German grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), who lives over the street and whom he talks to via walkie-talkie, which is kind of cute the first time, but not so much by the seventh.

For a year, Oskar is too bereaved to investigate what his father has left behind but then, one day, he ventures into his father’s closet, where he finds a key in a blue vase. The key is in an envelope with one word on the front: ‘Black’. Oskar decides that this is a message from his dead father and, if he can find the lock the key fits, his own grief will somehow make sense. Because the ‘Black’ is capitalised he assumes it’s a name so sets out to visit every Black in New York’s five boroughs, even though there are 452 of them.

This is also Oskar’s way of hanging on to his father; I got that, and I was, on the odd occasion, moved — I was particularly touched by the way Oskar carried a tambourine everywhere, to help with his anxiety — but Oskar himself is not a winning personality. This has nothing to do with Horn, who has tremendous, big blue eyes, and is actually terrifically adroit. It’s just the character of Oskar, as drawn, is so relentlessly ungiving and self-obsessed, he’s Extremely Tiresome & Incredibly Hard To Take. That said, he is befriended by the mysterious elderly gentleman (Max von Sydow) who has moved in with his grandmother, and is known only as ‘The Renter’. The renter is a mute, who won’t or can’t talk, and communicates via his palms — ‘yes’ is written on one, ‘no’ on the other — and writes longer messages on a pad. ‘Stop. No more!’ he writes at one point. Exactly.

This film is beautifully shot — every frame shimmers somehow — and the performances are all there, but there is something unpleasantly fetishist about it. Plus, what is it trying to say? That everyone experiences loss of some kind? That we all come round to death in the end? That life goes on? That all the Blacks in New York are humane and always in whenever anyone calls? That 11-year-old boys are perfectly safe roaming cities, even at night? That a note left on a swing in a public park will still be there over a year later, and still perfectly readable?

I can say only that the ending has been contrived as an absolute, scar-healing weep-fest and even though I am a great crier — didn’t I cry all the way through War Horse? Haven’t I only just stopped crying over Marley and Me? — I was left absolutely cold. So now I’ve put it out there, for your consideration, and the rest is up to you. I’ve done what I can, within my limitations.