Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was without a doubt the big surprise of this year’s Best Picture nominations. The film, directed by Stephen Daldry, is based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which I very much enjoyed when I read it four or five years ago. When I heard the novel was going to be made into a film, I was skeptical, largely because the young protagonist seemed a difficult character to adapt. The movie makes a choice to change this character significantly, and in effect alters the focus of the story. Ultimately, the movie is better than I expected, but not great, and certainly not worthy of a Best Picture nomination.
The film and novel tell the story of a young boy, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), whose father is killed on September 11, 2001. Oskar is an unusual child, socially awkward, sensitive, and highly curious, a self-described “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, [and] percussionist,” among other things. In life, Oskar’s father Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) would devise “missions” to send Oskar on, such as finding a mythological long-lost sixth borough of New York City, designed to force Oskar to learn to interact with the people and world around him. After his father dies, Oskar is looking through his old belongings, and finds a mysterious key in an envelope labeled “Black,” which Oskar is convinced is a clue in one last mission, which, when solved, will unveil a message from his father. He sets off on his mission, which involves traveling on foot (since September 11, Oskar is scared of public transportation, among other things which would have made this experiences much easier) all over New York City and knocking on the doors of every person with the last name “Black,” and asking if they knew his father. During these journeys, he plays tambourine, which helps to calm him down.
Perhaps you are starting to see why I was skeptical about the film adaptation. Oskar is a character that I felt could only exist on paper. He seemed too complex to bring to the big screen, and an effort to do so I felt would result in an overly precocious version of the character, probably played by some insufferable saucer-eyed child actor from the Freddie Highmore category. Perhaps Stephen Daldry foresaw the same potential pitfall, which led him to change the character. In the novel, Oskar is nine years old, which seems generally appropriate for his actions – he was a naturally odd and awkward child, and these traits were intensified by the trauma of his father’s death. In the film, however, although they never mention Oskar’s age, he is played by Thomas Horn, who was 14 at the time. This dramatically shifts the way in which we interpret the character, and offers a new focus on a potential mental illness – he mentions at one point that he was once tested for Asperger’s Syndrome, but that the results were inconclusive. This also largely changes the entire focus of the story. Whereas in the novel we were primarily concerned with the tragic story of the utterly endearing Oskar, learning to cope with grief and trauma, we see a larger presence of Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock), and she becomes the true sympathetic character, dealing with the premature loss of her husband while simultaneously raising an out of control child with special needs who is taking his anger out on her. This dynamic almost works, and may have been the only way to adapt the character without making him completely intolerable and destroying the soul of the story.
Another change (and then I promise I’ll be done with comparing it to the book) is the almost total absence of an entire subplot involving Oskar’s grandparents, complete with flashbacks to the beginning of their romance in Dresden. The characters are present in the movie (played by Zoe Caldwell and a wonderful performance by Max von Sydow, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination), but their roles are significantly diminished. This was ultimately a wise decision, made simply for economical reasons – their story line was poignant and purposeful, but would have been impossible to fit into the time constraints of film.
There are some excellent performances in this movie, but they weren’t where I expected them to be. Thomas Schell was in the novels a vibrant and colorful character, which served to explicate the enormous void left in his family after his death. Unfortunately, Tom Hanks, whom I am typically a fan of in most things, was utterly forgettable, and seemed not to understand the depth of his own character. (I did appreciate the directorial decision at a few moments to illustrate Thomas Schell’s own difficulty dealing with what was at times a very frustrating child, a diversion from his near-Superdad status in the novel.) Who really shines is Sandra Bullock, who after last year’s Academy Award win for Best Actress in The Blind Side seems to have finally found her stride. She completely makes the movie for me, which is essential, for as noted, I feel that her character (intentionally or not) became the main object of emphathy in the film. Max von Sydow, as mentioned above, is also wonderful. (And in his role as the grandfather rendered mute by past trauma, he is the third person nominated for an acting Oscar with no dialogue).
Thomas Horn in the lead role I can only describe as acceptable. That said, I have to give the guy credit, considering he was casted after producer Scott Rudin happened to see Horn competing (and winning $31,800) on Kids Week of Jeopardy. (Seriously.) Clearly it was important to find a no-name that would be a fresh face, and I suppose they succeeded admirably.
All in all, I still don’t necessarily think that this is a movie that needed to be made, but given my skepticism, they did a decent job with it. That said, it certainly does not deserve an Academy Award for Best Picture, and is indicative of why the move to more nominees was a bad call.
Still though, it’s better than Hugo.