'Out of the blue' is one way of describing Stephen Daldry's tale of a grieving boy struggling to come to terms with the death of his father during the September 11th terrorist attacks. Perhaps the most interesting notion is how suddenly it came to prominence with not one, but two, Oscar nominations (Best Picture and Supporting Actor). Adapted from a novel; Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) pens a screenplay that solely aims to evoke emotional tension using 9/11 as the story's premise.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close focuses on Oskar (Thomas Horn); an irritatingly prim boy with suggested Asperger's syndrome, which proves a defining element in both character and plot, as the youngster struggles to accept the death of his father played by Tom Hanks. Discovering a key and a cryptic clue in his dad's closet, Oskar embarks on a mission to uncover the location of the lock, in the hope of seeking closure to his painful suffering.
The biggest problem here is a combination of two things: firstly using 9/11 as a basis for a film is not unusual (see World Trade Centre et al), but rather than as a mere backdrop, it explicitly tries to evoke horrendous memories relating to that day, rather than create an independent story. Through conversation or flashback we are constantly reminded of September 11th and how relentless it was - as if we didn't know.
The second flaw is the way Oskar is portrayed. An effort to create a naive, fragile soul that has mental health issues as well as trauma complexities is a difficult task, and fails to work on the basis that we are encouraged to sympathise: one moment, a poignantly articulate narrator gradually begins to generate some audience engagement, but is instantly banished when the obnoxiousness of a foul-mouthed brat rears his head. Little annoyances build up; for example, when he embarks on a 25th Hour style monologue that feels like it goes on for all eternity, and then some.
The extreme sentimentality of the piece is unlikely to faze the sceptics amongst us, but on a basic level the moments of embrace, tenderness and loss will indeed strike a chord with some viewers. However, for the most part it is a shameless plug for a stateside patriotism that in fact generates a lot of prejudice, hatred and anger in relation to the forceful reminder of 9/11.
Using terrorism as the basis for Oskar's heartache is unnecessary. His father could have died in a hundred other ways on a thousand different days if the filmmakers so wished, but instead decide to target the single most devastating moment of the past twenty years in an obvious attempt to engage its audience. Were the narrative to be about a man who dies in a car crash, void of Hollywood heavyweights Bullock and Hanks, would anyone batter an eyelid, let alone gift Oscar nominations?
This leads us to another factor: the supporting role of Max von Sydow. A talented actor, having been in some excellent movies over the decades; his inclusion as an ageing German mute doesn't lift the film to a newer or more respectable height, as his character proves terribly gimmicky and ultimately irrelevant in the scheme of the plot, too.
VERDICT: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is awfully crass at times as it goes straight for the jugular at every opportune moment. Hanks and Bullock have small roles, allowing von Sydow to step in and offer an interesting, yet contrived contribution. Its inclusion as a Best Picture contender is baffling, and can only be credited with such due to reasons of a political nature, because there's nothing here that justifies association with any awards.