The young Oskar Schell, a peculiar, smart lad,
Enjoyed all the puzzles made up by his dad,
Unique expeditions, inventive and witty,
That forced him to question and search New York City.
He loved his dad dearly but came home one day
To find Dad’s phone messages trying to say
That something had happened, unknown to his son,
September 11 in 2001.
He hid those six messages Mom couldn’t hear,
And kept them in secret for nearly a year.
He can’t understand why his father is dead,
And drifts from his mom after cruel things he said.
He finds in a closet a blue vase that breaks,
Revealing a key which sets up the stakes.
He thinks the name “Black” is a dubious clue
To something his dad wanted him to pursue.
He sets up a system, obsessive and thorough,
To find every person named Black in each borough.
The first, Abby Black, doesn’t know of the key,
And every Black after can’t help Oskar’s plea.
At one point, he meets his old grandmother’s Renter,
Who can’t seem to speak but lets Oskar be venter.
He offers through notes to assist Oskar’s quest
And joins him on trips as a reticent guest.
The quiet old man’s both a blessing and bother,
And Oskar believes he must be his grandfather.
They meet many Blacks, but no progress is made,
And both have their doubts about this whole crusade.
When Oskar tries playing the answering machine,
The Renter can’t take it and stops their routine.
He’s simply enabling Oskar’s obsession
And chooses to leave, sparking Oskar’s aggression.
A circled phone number leads Oskar right back
To where it all started, to sad Abby Black.
Late one night, she takes Oskar over to see
Her unseen ex-husband, who knows of the key.
This William Black says that the vase he gave Schell
Was a gift from his father, who’s dead now as well.
He too made a search for the key that he had,
Which holds no great secrets from Oskar’s own dad.
The boy then admits that, the day Dad did die,
He could have picked up but was too scared to try.
He flees for a tantrum from all of these shocks,
Unwilling to see what the Black key unlocks.
His mother calms him by assuring her son
She followed his efforts since when he’d begun.
She too met the Blacks while preparing his way
And knew where he’d be on his every search day.
He starts to find closure and not feel as bad
When he solves the last puzzle left by his dad.
His grandfather comes back, and woefulness clears
As Oskar at last learns to conquer his fears.

I wasn’t sure at first if I could consider Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a “meet ‘em and move on” movie, but this latest viewing confirmed it to me. It features a journey, a driving relationship, a revisiting of many of those encountered toward the end, and perhaps the most literal portrayal of the words “meet ‘em and move on,” since Oskar allows only six minutes for every Black on his list and then tries to move on. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film’s powerful story lends itself to this often emotional sub-genre.

The film’s reception truly bewildered me since several critics insisted it was terrible and decried its Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It remains one of the only Best Picture nominees with a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes (46%). What they saw as syrupy and sentimental, I saw as heartfelt and heart-breaking. Its plot is also presented in a unique way through insightful voiceovers and frequent flashbacks. I tend to think it somehow became the “in” thing to criticize the film, just as American Hustle earned overrated accolades it didn’t necessarily deserve.

Most still agreed, though, on the impressive performance of young Thomas Horn, who earned the role after being noticed when he won Kids “Jeopardy!” Though he is sometimes rather irritating, Horn gives Oskar both his precociousness and vulnerability, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him as he tries to make sense of something that doesn’t. True to its tagline, the film isn’t about 9/11 but every day after, and Oskar and his mother embody all the pain and confusion left in the wake of the “worst day.”

Sandra Bullock evokes the grief of Oskar’s mother even better than in Gravity, and though much of the film leads you to believe she is a neglectful parent to let her son wander New York in search of strangers every Saturday, her love and involvement are made clear by the end. While this makes her more admirable, I still think she should have gone with him.

Max von Sydow gives an Oscar-nominated performance as the Renter without speaking a single word. His notes are a unique form of communication but are often difficult to read. Tom Hanks is skillfully likable as usual as Oskar’s dead father, who tows the line between potential puzzle-making genius and concerned parent trying to keep his son active and unafraid. Viola Davis (The Help, Won’t Back Down) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) also prove their acting chops as the estranged Blacks who hold the answers that disappoint Oskar, though their roles aren’t completely fleshed out, and there are still questions left unanswered about the key.

Unlike the book, the film explains some of Oskar’s odd behavior as the result of potential Asperger’s syndrome, a point which, combined with the trauma of 9/11, also clarifies why he becomes so focused on his key quest. Though all the other Blacks he meets don’t hold the answers for which he is searching and are seen too quickly to have much development as characters, they offer snapshots of life that make them seem like real and diverse people. In addition, many (certainly not all) offer thoughtful little touches—hugs, drawings, prayers—that aren’t what Oskar wants but in some ways may be what he needs.

In the end, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a very serious movie about a serious subject, death and grief and learning to move on. It’s a film that is at once sad and hopeful and one deserving of much more appreciation than it received.

Best line (there are a lot of good ones, but this one helps to sum up some of what I love about “meet ‘em and move on” films): (Oskar Schell, monologuing) “I started with a simple problem… a key with no lock… and I designed a system I thought fit the problem. I broke everything down in the smallest parts… and tried to think of each person as a number… in a gigantic equation.  [next monologue] But it wasn’t working… because people aren’t like numbers. They’re more like letters… and those letters want to become stories… and Dad said that stories need to be shared.”

Artistry: 9
Characters/Actors: 9
Entertainment: 7
Visual Effects: 9
Originality: 8
Watchability: 6
Other (language): -2
TOTAL: 46 out of 60

Next: #166 – The Dark Knight trilogy

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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