Why ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ only whimpered at a distance

February 27, 2012 · and how to fix it 

I went into this movie with a great deal of anticipation after being wowed by the trailer; a lean and emotionally charged montage of a young boy’s epic journey around New York, set to the pulse-thumping, heart-string twanging strains of U2′s ‘Where the Streets have No Name’. Even from that trailer alone I was getting choked up. The very notion of it, this hopeless but hopeful quest, the urgency the boy addresses it with, the uniting of all these various people through loss and the promise of regrowth- seemed a no-fail winner.

But it failed. I’ll explain why shortly.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of the near-Aspergic boy Oskar Schell, whose father (Tom Hanks) handled his social awkwardness by setting him fantastic quests ranging the breadth of New York that forced him to get out and interact with people (find the fictional lost 6th borough! how? *shoulder shrug*). Then Tom Hanks dies in the 9/11 bombing, and Oskar goes mental. He withdraws intensely from his mother (Sandra Bullock) and holes up in a secret cupboard he has converted into a shrine for his lost father, morbidly listening again and again to the last 6 answering machine messages he left from within the Twin Towers. At some point he tells his mother “I wish you’d died instead of him”.

Ouch. But that is not all. One day Oskar finds a mysterious vase in his father’s walk-in closet, with a mysterious key inside, with the mysterious word ‘Black’ on the outside. He decides this is (or could be) just another of his father’s quests, and sets out to hunt down all the people named ‘Black’ in New York and ask them if they knew his father.

His mom lets him go. For a while he hooks up with an old chap who won’t speak (Max von Syddow) who may/may not be his estranged grandfather. There is lots of tambourine rattling (Oskar carries it with him to give himself confidence), number recounting (Oskar is a bit OCD about numbers), screechy 9/11 panic soundscapes filled with stress-inducing crashes, sirens, and ringing phones, all to the grunting and creaking overtures of an over-labored, over-written plot (by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth and novelist Jonathan Safram Foer) that strain cloyingly to squeeze every last drop of manufactured, foisted, hugely coincidental, near sadistic sentiment out of the audience.

Ugh. So, yes, I didn’t like that. Now I will explain some reasons why, and therefore why it failed.

** SPOILERS **

PROBLEMS 1

There are many problems. I will start with one presented by the trailer. The trailer brings together this montage of many different people coming together with a common purpose (in one shot all reaching out to touch and bless Oskar’s head) with powerful music playing behind. This is what is moving. We can see the same effect in the utterly un-connected to any storyline YouTube sensation of Matt Harding who danced around the world with large groups of strangers. That video is moving for its sense of coming together and the soaring music. See here if you care to-

Now you can compare that to the trailer for Extremely Loud. The power comes from essentially the same kind of tactic- fast-track images of faces with powerful music and motion. See here-

The trouble is, these pure moments of uplifting coming-together are missing from the film. Or at the least, they are presented in nowhere near as powerful and visceral a fashion as in the trailer. There are hints of them, but they are spread out, watered down, and overshadowed by the weight of coincidental schmaltzy goop that the story gimmicks ladle over them.

What schmaltzy goop and gimmicks? Very well I will tell you.

PROBLEMS 2

There are many artificial gimmicks going on in this story- which have led lots of reviewers to call the movie ‘contrived’. Here I will name them.

1- SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 / SIXTH SENSE GIMMICK

The Kurt Vonnegut book Slaughterhouse 5 tells the harrowing tale of the fire-bombing of Dresden, interspersed by a slow progression of flashbacks set in the belly of a transport plane raked by anti-aircraft fire. Throughout the book these flashbacks fill us with a sense of foreboding about one sick young soldier who has buried himself in flak jackets in the plane’s belly. Is he in bad shock? He’s super pale. The flashbacks keep on nudging and winking us through these scenes until at last, like some gory rose finally unpetalling for our delectation, we learn the true horror at the heart of his situation.

He has been shot by anit-aircraft fire, and his guts are bubbling up through his stomach. He has covered himself with the flak jackets to hide the injury. His fellow soldiers have been telling him everything is OK, but of course by the end he’s dead. Ugh. This is war. you didn’t see that coming, did you?

In Slaughterhouse 5, I was impressed by this device. I was not impressed by it in ‘Extremely Loud…’, though it is used in much the same fashion. Perhaps because it relied upon information being artificially withheld from the audience, for the sole purpose of giving us that bloody-rose unpetalling experience near the movie’s climax. I find that very tasteless. I am not some pain-gourmet come to be badgered and bludgeoned and teased by a movie before the final pain is shown to me like a special and nurtured treat. Ugh.

In this movie, it is the phone calls Tom Hanks made to his son Oskar from the burning buildings. The final revelation- which we should have seen from the off, since we were entirely in Oskar’s POV for most of this bit- was that he was actually in the house when his father called for the final time, but did not have the strength to pick up the phone.

I can buy that. That explains everything about why Oskar was freaking out. How could he forgive himself, as his father called out again and again “are you there?”

It’s horrific, on a par with the same strategy that author Safran-Foer used in his debut novel ‘Everything is Illuminated’, in which the final unbudding gory rose is the story of a Jewish father who attempted to defy the Nazis by refusing to renounce his faith. We are given the true horror of that in stages too- as though it were bits of torture-porn candy scattered through the forest to lead us to the Gingerbread house. The true horror is that he won’t renounce his faith when they shoot his pregnant daughter in the stomach, but he will renounce it when they say they won’t shoot her in the head, and end her awful screaming, unless he does so.

It is a manipulative gimmick. Sure, it has some power when we learn what the true horror was. It adds a Sixth Sense-like new perspective that helps us understand why Oskar was so freaked out. But, it earned my resentment for doing it that way. It was utterly unnatural. Open with that story, that horror, and you would have me on Oskar’s side far more fiercely than anything else in the movie offered.

Rather, by shutting us out of this suffering, the movie literally shuts us out of Oskar’s experience. We can’t get into his head, or even feel his pain as though it were our own. We are merely spectators, sitting there like Alex in A Clockwork Orange with our eyes strapped open, waiting to be fed the gross morsels the movie doles out.

SOLUTION- Put the movie back into its natural order, and let us see events as Oskar does. Let us in on his pain from the start, and instead of gimmicks in place of a story, frame a proper story that arcs from low to up again, and the battle required. It could even be done with existing footage, reshuffled.

2- MIRACULOUS QUEST RESOLUTIONS

Oskar is on numerous quests at the same time in this movie. a, the active quest, is spurred by the found key and the name ‘Black’, is to find the person called Black who knows something about his father. b, The quest in the back of his mind is the last one his father consciously set him- to find the fictional 6th borough of New York. c, a third quest, is less self-conscious but still articulated by Oskar (in one of countless breathy and annoying voice-overs), is to find a way to move on past his father’s death. d, are other more vague quests involve getting over his fears- mostly to do with terrorists and places reminiscent of the Twin Towers, and reconnecting with his mom.

How many of these quests can we expect full and satisfying closure on? For it to be satisfying, it has to feel realistic, and not ridiculously coincidental (even miraculous). Is it even possible for all these quests to find closure? Would that even be desirable? What life lessons do we learn if all our sought-for desires come true? Surely that would be a utopia our ‘primitive minds would go mad trying to wake up from’ (The Matrix).

But the movie resolves them all. With utmost attempt at tearful solemnity, it tries to close them all.

a- the KEY, is resolved by Oskar finding the guy who the key belonged to (who also happens to be the estranged husband of the very first ‘Black’ he visited, coincidence #1), after finding a randomly circled number on a piece of paper (coincidence #2). I can imagine this is possible. But the chances that this Black would have some sorrowful tale of his own regarding a need for the key are astronomical (coincidence #3). But he does. The key was left by his father in his will, to open a safety deposit box, with a final message in it. For him to get his father’s final words, he needs the key, which bears only his last name on its packet.

His last name, what? Would your father leave you a key with your shared last name on it? What would that even mean? Surely it would have your first name? And if it was a note he wanted you to have, then why leave a key at all, why not just leave the item? Like the whole plot of ‘Salt’ it only exists to further itself, and get Oskar on his quest (coincidence #4)

b- the 6th borough, is resolved when Oskar stumbles randomly upon a note hidden in Central Park by his father, congratulating him for finding the 6th borough- even though he hasn’t. Coincidence #5. Some may say that since his father made a show of pointing out the hiding place earlier, for another reason, this resolution is earned. Nonsense. It is a total flight of luck that Oskar finds the note, since he has not solved his father’s quest at all.

c- move on, is resolved when Oskar learns his mom has been following his hunt to find the Blacks all along, and in a very real sense was ‘with him’ at every stage, just like we were with Bastion as he stole the book from the bookstore in Never Ending Story. She has shared his adventures, experienced New York the same way he has, and through this experience they have bonded, and found a way forward.

I actually totally buy this one. This is the proper resolution, the only one we need, and the only one that works. He reconnects with his mom and the world. At this point I expected to see the trailer montage more powerfully revisited- in some kind of grand Blacks reunion party to be held in Central Park, a kind of hopeful and happy funeral to mirror the miserable one at the start, where Oskar riled loudly that they were burying an empty box.

I actually really expected to see this scene. I needed it. Instead, Oskar found his dad’s secret note. Silly. The wrong emotional pay-off. We needed to move forwards then, not backwards.

d- get over fears, a large portion of which are helped along by the air-dropping of the mysterious possible grandfather figure, who kookily won’t speak (a nod to Safram-Foer’s Slaughterhouse 5 love is that this old silent man experienced the bombing of Dresden), but will urge him to heal and man up (by riding the subway, for example). These may be some of the best bits of the film, but they are undoubtedly Deus ex Machina, and therefore coincidence #6.

SOLUTION- So where does this leave us? Well, with a clear path to fixing the movie. It’s far too long anyway. After we’ve straightened the narrative out (as earlier described), we need to cut out resolutions to a and b. Leave them unanswered, which makes Oskar feel like crashing to earth with misery. Then just when his whole hunt seems most hopeless, we bring in climax c. His mom was there for him throughout, the Blacks he met were real, and we close out with a big party of them all, a reunion, and Max making some friends, and looking at happy photos of his dad, alongside all the other victims those families lost, and feeling like he’s moved on.

If you need the grandfather of part d, we can handle that too, now we’ve cut a and b. There’s room for a little coincidence again.

To read more and how to fix it (ahtfi) story articles- go here.

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25 Responses to “Why ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ only whimpered at a distance
  1. Paul H- says:

    You’ve got to give credit to the people who made the trailer … I agree that sadly nothing in the movie comes even close the magic of that trailer. Which proves that EL and IC at least had all the right ingredients for a great story. But the know-it-all kid is one of the worst character cliches around. Did you care about him or his quest? I lost sympathy for Oskar every single time he started ‘educating’ the adults.

    • MJG says:

      I’m pretty much with you on Oskar being annoying. Having him be near-Aspergic was a gimmick, I guess Safran-Foer’s way of putting a spin on 9/11, but yeah it was a gimmick that pushed me away, and got in the way of sympathy. My g/f hated it when he was chastising the old man.

  2. Tamil says:

    MJG, your g/f must of had some problems about that scene. I agree with Paul that you have to give credit for the trailer. Trailers always make the movie look like its going to be awesome and sometimes, well most of the times its not.

    • MJG says:

      Right, I did appreciate the trailer. If I want to recapture the magic of what I thought the movie would be, I can always rewatch the trailer. Like I can rewatch Matt dancing multiple times.

  3. Kelly says:

    I have to say, that I agree about the movie and how it plays out or doesn’t for that matter. While looking for answers to my questions about this movie after watching it myself, I came across several sites with articles and discussions about the actual book that this was based on. I believe from the several excerpts I read from the book that they left out some seriously necessary information that would have made the plot of the movie much more believable and easier to relate too. I also agree about the backwards way in which the story is told that leaves many viewers just thinking they are watching a messed up kid with more problems than just dealing with the loss of his father. My husband and I were more than a little disappointed with the movie after seeing the previews; he more than I. I, however, am going to read the book, because I feel that there is a very interesting story here that they translated very poorly to film.

    • MJG says:

      I saw Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News called it traumaploitation and grief porn, both of which nail it, I think. The movie gets as much mileage out of ghoulishly milking 9/11 as it can, with the ‘money-shot’ being the ultimate realization of the ‘true’ grief. Quite sickening.

  4. By the way i like this movie’s trailer very much. The trailer is awesome in my view. There is no any moving fasten things in this. But i learning other problems is make some bother in that movie. But the thomas getting his daddy’s advice. Tom hanks and sandra i like them very much. They act together,it,s great. But they provide this movie in translated is into quiet Effectless…

  5. Maxim says:

    in “a” coincidences #1 & #2 is a normal chain of events: the number is of a person who posted about his sale. Most likely Tom found out about the sale like that anyway. Why is it so hard to believe that Tom was about to give the key back but didn’t make it?!

  6. I personally loved this movie, and was sad to see such negative reviews. I liked the fact that it is centered around 9/11, as I think as painful and emotional as that was, we should not forget it. I thought that the acting was superb and the scenery of NYC was wonderful. I loved the message and even though I was emotionally tired by the films end, I still felt good after watching it. I give this film a 10 and hope to see it get many awards. I’ll be owning it when its released. The acting by the whole cast, although the boy carried the movie almost single handily, was great, and this movie seriously touched my heart.

  7. I am totally agree with Jasmine Martinez. The movie is not that bad actually it is good enough to capture many awards. Very disappointed by these negative reviews. The cast has worked hard and should get rewards for that. 4.5 Stars from me out of 5 for the movie.

  8. In my opinion, the trailer is awesome but the reason for the failure of the movie seems to be the errenous montage. The movie is not all that bad. Let us appreciate atleast the amount of toil that it absorbed.

  9. As I read about it is so much boring at end and just a story about the a messed up kid.Tom Hanks play good role ,but only single person can’t make move hit.End of the movie is so much tiring.I were more than a little disappointed with the movie after seeing the previews.

  10. I kind of seem to like this movie and taken aback to see so many awful comments. The central idea was good and the cast has done a great job. I wish it gets many awards.

  11. I have not seen the movie but heard very bad reviews about it. Though the movie has a concrete subject, it has failed to make it to the award due to several backlogs.

  12. Gary says:

    I think this review has got it completely wrong. I’m from Australia, have no real connection to 9-11 or a lot of the local ‘themes’ running through the movie (and, in fact I’ve never left a comment like this online before EVER .. but feel the need to) .. I completely and utterly got every single one of the hundreds of messages beaming from the movie. Best movie I have ever seen!!!!! I almost feel compelled to write to the author and the director to thank them. Quality has some times to do with how much the viewer “got it”.

    • MJG says:

      Fair enough Gary. Glad to host your first ever comment :) That you enjoyed the movie is great, wish I could have done. Perhaps had I not seen the trailer, and built up a contrary set of expectations, I might have enjoyed it more. Though I doubt that. I didn’t enjoy Safran Foer’s book ‘Everything is Illuminated’ either, for much the same reasons I disliked this. Each to their own, I suppose.

  13. visit here says:

    Very nice epic story of a boy who is passing through the New York City. I believe the story was taken in a much good manner to reflect all the pointers and ideas to the public. Thanks for the great job done from your end.

  14. Christine says:

    The book you described is Catch-22. NOT Slaughterhouse 5. They aren’t even written by the same author.

  15. Jim says:

    I was also looking forward to watching this film and when I did I was a bit disappointed. It had its good parts, don’t get me wrong, but I was experiencing more of a mystery quest than an emotional movie. I haven’t read Slaughterhouse-Five, but after reading your review I will pick it up.

  16. Sarah says:

    Jim, for my part, I liked this movie, it is my personal opinion, I love movies mystery …

  17. Jane Buggle says:

    Horrible movie of a wonderful book.

  18. I saw the film I find it quite well built I recommend it to the public.

  19. This film reminds me of good memories of the past year, thank you for sharing with us this time

  20. Beth Thomas says:

    I’m a little slow on the reply. (about 2 years) But I must say, I only saw this movie yesterday, had never heard of it before, and had never seen the trailer. I was trying to find fun facts on the “Six Burough” legend (wondering if it existed outside of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) when I came across your extremely negative review.

    I think it is clear that you must not have experienced extreme pain and grief as a child, or had to wade through that grief with a parent who was also completely crumpled by a traumatic event. Otherwise you would have been able to relate to Oscar, his mom, and all the conversations he had in a way that would have astounded you. I absolutely loved this story, AND the way in which it was told (“out of order”) because it was more REAL that way. By only finding out at the end that Oscar did not pick up the phone, we have traveled with him through his denial to admit the circumstances. We should not have known this fact until it was revealed, because Oscar was not just hiding it from the audience but from everybody including himself. I believe to call the building up to this moment “torture-porn” is completely unfair. This moment perfectly captures the human condition of how we feel when have finally let go of a heavy, guilt and grief stricken secret which we are ashamed to share, yet we know we need to because it has been eating away at us inside. I don’t think you can capture that any better.

    All of the dialog between Oscar and his mom, and all of the conversations he had with people were all remarkably real, down to who we really are and how we deal with extreme pain. If you were not expecting this in the film, I understand. Even in reading the cover I did not quite expect the amount of raw emotion driven into it. However, it did not surprise me because the whole movie is about a boy grieving the death of his Father who died in the most senseless, tragic occurrence our country has ever seen. Should we really expect it to be all happy like you unifying your tube video? Perhaps you went into the film with unrealistic expectations, or just too many expectations in general. I find my favorite movies are often the ones where I have never even seen the trailer.

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