Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is at both times exactly what you would expect and surprising (you will groan even louder at that comment once you’ve seen the movie). It’s a movie that has all the trappings of your typical melodramatic, gunning for an Oscar, overly inspirational movie. The actors’ names are all right (a list including John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, and Jeffrey Wright all playing bit parts, with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock being the main supporting), and they all play amidst a backdrop of New York City on September 11th, 2001 – something that is immediately recognizable to every viewer. You look at the trailer, its cutesiness and its dramatic overtones and you want to groan and just pretend that these types of movies weren’t made anymore. But then you watch it and you realize that no matter how schmaltzy or corny, no matter how melodramatic the characters or over the top the plot is, this movie – if you let it – will still be able to suck you in, grab at your heartstrings and play them like Yo-Yo Ma (hey, what’d you expect from a movie like this?). And that is a good thing.
First and foremost, the main character is the 10ish year old kid, Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn). Much like many child actors, his performance is uneven. Whether he’s got some sort of disability or not (at the very least he’s a weird-ass kid, but in the movie they do say he was tested for Asperger’s Syndrome, although the tests were inconclusive), you can tell he’s trying too hard, and that is never what wanted. It also doesn’t help that he looks and acts older than it seems he should be (for the story to work and in a few scenes). For most of the scenes where the dramatic intensity is not ratcheted up (mainly when he is not yelling, screaming, freaking out, or anything along those lines) he is pretty good, but for the rest he never quite gets to the point where it’s not easy to tell that he’s acting. He is no Sixth Sense Haley Joel Osment (YUP). In fact the script probably asks too much of the character. Not only is he expected to be in 99% of the scenes, but he also has a lot of voice over narration of his thoughts (that clearly sound like a too clever adult, especially when he makes a metaphor between the sun blowing up and his father) and that hurts his performance. He never seems like a kid and when he does things you would expect a kid to do it seems really out of place. Now the hint of a mental incapability early on in the film is supposed to help that believability, but that doesn’t completely quell the disconnect.
Aside from Horn’s performance, all the other acting is solid. Sandra Bullock gets the most screen time and 95% of it is used to be distant and utterly depressed (a little too much-so). Tom Hanks plays the fairytale dad. He’s incredibly supportive, encourages his son to do as many things as possible, and (the movie is based on this) gives his son challenges that are supposed to get him to come out of his shell (the “reconnaissance expedition” that serves as a reference for the types of challenges Oskar’s dad gives his son is for Oskar to find the 6th borough of NYC, although early on in the film Hanks reveals the real goal of the challenge is to get Oskar to talk to strangers). Aside from Hanks and Bullock, the other actors are not given much to do. von Sidow’s character is perhaps the oddest of them all as he does not speak due to a traumatic experience he went through when he was younger. Instead he writes on a pieces of paper what he wants to say, or holds up his left hand or right hand to answer yes or no (I know it’s all wrapped up in a neat little package – oh Homer Simpson, you know exactly what to say and how to say it).
The cleverness, or at least the devices that are used, are a tough pill to swallow. Now, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 will probably play an integral part in books and movies for years to come (especially when all these kids that were too young to understand it get older and start creating), but it feels like a chintzy move. When you use something as nationally traumatic and easily accessible, every single audience member carries their own particular baggage into the theater. All their thoughts and feelings bubble up at the back of their throats and it immediately puts the viewer in a completely different mindset, one that makes them emotionally invested in the movie (even if the movie itself has done nothing to get you that way). It makes things almost too easy. Even though I knew this going in, by the time I had finished the movie I had begrudgingly allowed its use. While it is still a somewhat cheap move to get viewers immediately engrossed in the dramatics on screen, it is done very well. While it remains the driving incident in the movie, it doesn’t feel like it is trumped up too much to get the tears flowing or the blood rushing. Basically if you are going to use 9/11’s attacks in a creative form, this is a very good example to seek.
The movie’s themes play close to the groan-worthy line too. Once the main plot of the movie is clear, Oskar going on another expedition so that he can be closer with his father in something they used to share, it’s easily recognizable what the movie is going to be about. You know he won’t end up finding what he was originally looking for but he’ll end up finding something better. You know he’ll end up touching a lot of people’s lives that he never had meant to and, in some cases, their lives will end up changing as well (such as reuniting a certain couple, ahem). You know that, by the end, he will have had to overcome fears he never had intended to while also coming to grips with all his feelings and thoughts. It plays out exactly as you know it will as soon as the movie’s plot is made clear. Again, while this is clearly an easy method for a melodramatic movie like this, it ends up on the side of the fence that is respectable. Sure, it might be damn close to going over to the other, eye-roll inspiring side but for the most part it doesn’t do that.
All of this is why, if you actually give the movie a chance, it may surprise you. Almost all of the dials are set to the highest maximum volume without making your eardrums explode. You know it is schmaltzy and overdramatic but the director does a good job of never letting the movie go over the top (for the most part). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will actually surprise you, which is perhaps its best feature, because when you go into a movie getting exactly what you expect and you can still come out a little surprised by the quality and the perfectly out of proportioned (but not freakishly so) emotion and cleverness, it may actually be a pretty good movie. Even though you probably would never want to admit it to your friends.