Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Ninth Nomination

When I opened the Oscar Nominations live online at 8:38 EST on Tuesday morning, I was between classes, and I ran the rest of it as my A.P. English Literature students took their seats. At first, the colorful little rectangles stacked up symmetrically, four on one side of announcers Jennifer Lawrence and Tom Sherak, and four on the other.

(If you missed it, you can watch it now.)

Eight movies stacked up, and I had seen them all! Suddenly, up popped the ninth nomination: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. What a surprise! I didn’t even know it had been released in 2011; I thought its release had been delayed. It had only opened on Cape Cod on Friday. Well, this put a wrinkle in my viewing sweep! Being the obsessive-compulsive individual I am, I was determined to smooth things out.

So I taught my classes, including my challenging group of ADHD 8th graders who turn distractedness into an art form. After school, I directed a Drama Club rehearsal until 4:30, and then I went home, made dinner, bade farewell to wife and daughter, and made the 7:00 showing, ready to escape into a movie after a stressful day.

When I got home, I compared notes with my wife who had read the novel. She told me the book had left her cold, and she had found it frustratingly gimmicky. And that’s exactly how I had felt about the movie.

I enjoyed elements of Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about the odyssey of Oskar Schell, an anti-social, highly intellectual child, possibly with Asperger syndrome, who searches the boroughs of New York City for the lock that will fit a key left by Oskar’s father who has been killed in the 9/11 disaster.

The acting is fairly good. Tom Hanks is at his pudgy overacting best, but his goofy approach suits the character of Thomas Schell, Oskar’s eccentric father, aspiring scientist turned jeweler (to support the family), who assigns Oskar whimsical tasks geared to occupy his hyperactive brain and force him to interact with other people. As Oskar’s deeply grieving but always loving mother, Sandra Bullock looks suitably stricken, as though she’s suffering from chronic migraines. Max von Sydow is intriguing as Oskar’s grandmother’s mysterious “Renter,” who refuses to speak, writing everything he wants to say in a notebook or holding up his right or left palm tattooed with “Yes” or “No.”

Max von Sydow’s performance here is all about his facial expressions, and this has landed him a Best Supporting Actor nod even though Hunter McCracken, the boy who plays young Jack in The Tree of Life, expresses a world of meaning with his eyes and body posture. Rightfully so, Thomas Horn was not nominated for an Oscar even though he delivers very long speeches very quickly without taking a breath. Horn is at times touching, but eventually his presence wears thin in the same way the Renter’s cutesy notes and other gimmicks in the film pique one's interest and then eventually become irritating. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is quite touching; I sat through the credits to listen to it.

Here, the gimmicks fly as fast as Oskar Schell’s narrated thoughts and his rapidly delivered run-ons. We have his father’s whimsical quest to find New York’s 6th borough and the shrine to his dead father Oskar makes in an overhead cupboard that also contains the answering machine with the recording of his father’s last six messages called from the south tower of the World Trade Center, which he replaces with a new answering machine he dashes out to buy on the night of 9/11, so that his mother never hears the messages, though I would have noticed right away that it was a new answering machine because the older one is smudged and discolored; and it’s in the cupboard that Oskar finds the small vase that contains a key and the envelope containing the key with the word “Black” written on it, and in order to assuage his sorrow, Oskar tells himself that the key unlocks a message left to him by his father in the possession of someone named Black, which leads to his quest to locate and interview the hundreds of Blacks living in New York City, so he packs his backpack with an Israeli gas mask and his notebook and his tambourine, which he shakes to distract him from his fears as he crosses streets and bridges and takes the subway, an interesting gimmick, though that means a whole hell of a lot of shaking of jingles as he makes his way through the busy city, sometimes with the help of the note-writing Renter, his journey ultimately leading him to a closer relationship with his mother, and a surprise that takes us into a montage reprising the entire journey.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is certainly not the weakest of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. The way I see it, it falls like this –

1. The Tree of Life
8. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
9. The Help

As for the other six films, I regard them in two clumps of three, but I’m indifferent as to where they stand in those two clumps, thus –

1. The Tree of Life
2. Moneyball/ War Horse/ The Artist
3. The Artist/ Moneyball/ War Horse
4. War Horse/ The Artist/ Moneyball
5. The Descendants/ Midnight in Paris/ Hugo
6. Midnight in Paris/ Hugo/ The Descendants
7. Hugo/ The Descendants/ Midnight in Paris
8. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
9. The Help

Excuse the gimmick.

In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a well-intended tale about the effects of the 9/11 tragedy, story quirks and a whimsical tone throttle the impact of a very powerful event. It is a film that is powerful in the few brief moments when Oskar listens to his father’s messages and when he dreams of his father falling from the burning building, but it is a film as bad as the moment in which John Goodman, as a doorman, stares at a television as CNN broadcasts live coverage of 9/11 and gasps, “Oh, God” in a tone that is downright comical.

Interchangeably throughout the film, Oskar says that his father died “in 9/11” and that he died “on 9/11” and that he died “at 9/11.” Since Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a film about words and wonder and secrets and clues, I wonder if this was intended as a deliberate gimmick. Giving the writers credit, they express the scope of 9/11. It is an event, like a battle; it is a date; it is a location.

Intentionally clever or not, this different wording suggests that writers and filmmakers still don’t know how to effectively address an event that overwhelmed a nation. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a whimsically clever film, but it is not a powerful film. It doesn’t have the visceral punch of United 93. It doesn’t cut to the bone. It must show the ubiquitous plywood wall covered with missing persons posters with overwrought reverence. With the intended-as-touching vignettes of the many Mr. and Mrs. Blacks hugging or crying over Oskar, it must assure us that everything is all right now, even though everything is not all right now. People who lost loved ones are not over the loss; and the same goes for people who were suffering worse tragedies and losses even before the planes struck.

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