Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (**½)

Few films in 2011 have been more heartbreaking or more frustrating than ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’.  At times it’s among the best things I’ve seen all year, while at others it’s shockingly subpar.  Director Stephen Daldry has never made a film that I’ve fully embraced, and while I’d say that this is my favorite of his, it’s still a case of an incomplete effort.  The acting and visuals are terrific, but the story itself is far better built for the novel format (its origin) than the big screen, where the film drags for large portions of time.  The first and last acts are top notch, but the middle act is so pedestrian and detracts so much from the positive aspects of the flick that it ultimately sinks the project.  I won’t call it out of the Oscar race though, since Eric Roth’s script and Daldry’s direction are rather effective in making you cry.  I’ll admit to getting choked up during 2 sequences (1 of which is a spoiler, but the other is simply an image of all the MISSING signs that popped up in New York after 9/11…as a resident of the city, it brings back a lot of bad memories), and I’m not always an easy target.  Never underestimate the power of making an Academy member cry.  That being said, it’s not nearly the Best Picture contender I thought it would be.  Honestly, the acting is the highlight of the film, though ironically the least likely aspect to be honored.

9 year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) hasn’t been adjusting well since his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) died in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.  His father was his best (and perhaps only) friend and guide to the world.  A potential sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome, Oskar doesn’t always interact too well with the universe, and Thomas found creative ways to improve that by sending him off on adventures and giving him mysteries to solve.  Now that he’s gone, Oskar is lost and has a strained relationship with his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock).  One year after his death, Oskar finds a key in a vase while searching through his father’s belongings.  Oskar can’t help but believe it’s a quest from his dad, and that finding the lock that fits the key will mean something.  Thus Oskar sets off on this improbable journey throughout the 5 boroughs on New York, at times joined by the silent renter (Max von Sydow) that inhabits a room in his grandmother’s apartment.  He meets some amazing people, but it all comes back to his father.  Essentially, this is a road trip film, just mostly on foot.  It ends up being that the journey is more important than the destination, but with a somewhat unsatisfying journey, the film is wounded early on and never fully recovers.

The acting is even better than you’d have hoped for.  Newcomer Thomas Horn is shockingly effective in playing a complicated kid that doesn’t always come off as likable.  It’s a real tightrope that Horn has to walk, but he does it perfectly.  I’m not sure if it’s just that the part fit him so well (he’s a former “Jeopardy” contestant), or if he’s a hot newcomer, but I’m very interested in what he’ll be doing next.  Either way, Horn is awesome here and would be in the Best Actor conversation in a less crowded year.  Also doing notable work are Tom Hanks and Max von Sydow.  Neither are in the film as much as you would hope, but both make their marks.  Either one would be a nice Supporting Actor nominee, but I’m not sure if it’s in the cards.  Tom Hanks makes the specter of his character waft through the entire film, so his presence is felt throughout.  It’s a tender and welcome role for a great actor who hasn’t really been doing the best work the past few years.  As for Max von Sydow, it’s a silent performance which is all the more impressive for how expressive it is.  His backstory was cut out, but you don’t really lose too much because of his talent.  The rest of the cast is shortchanged to varying degrees.  While Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright have tiny but important parts, they aren’t given much to do, and John Goodman is essentially a cameo.  Sandra Bullock however, is rather wasted.  She’s given almost nothing to do until the 3rd act, and it feels like a cop out more than a plot twist.  She’s good, just like everyone else, but I wanted more.  At least Horn, Hanks, and von Sydow make up for it.

Stephen Daldry has a softer touch than usual here in the director’s chair, but it’s still an imperfect work.  His attempts to lighten the mood at times with comedy don’t work too well and sometimes borderline on mocking Oskar’s issues.  He’s at his best when making the audience cry.  Armed with a tearjerker of a script by Eric Roth, they never fail at getting you emotional.  They just aren’t quite able to make this feel like a complete film.  Honestly, the best this film was at was during its first trailer.  Expectations were high, and this is a bit of a let down in the end.  I do give them credit for handling 9/11 very well, which is no small accomplishment.  If only the film on the whole had been better.

Oscar-wise, depending on how many Best Picture slots are in play, we could see a nod for the film.  Best Director seems iffy, likely ending Daldry’s streak of nominations.  Max von Sydow seems most likely to score a big nod for the film with a Supporting Actor citation, but we’ll see.  Adapted Screenplay might benefit from a lack of a true 5th slot contender, and the tech categories will just depend on how it fares elsewhere.  Essentially, the film remains a question mark for awards.

‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ isn’t quite an interesting failure, but it can’t quite become a complete film.  The first act where we see Oskar and Thomas as a team is rather good and the third act where emotions boil over for so many characters is incredibly touching, but the second act dealing with the fruitlessness of much of the search borders on being a complete bore.  I recommend seeing it as an above average tearjerker, but don’t go in expecting one of the best films of the year.  It just isn’t that at all.

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