Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close ***
Cast: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn
Viola Davis, John Goodman, Max von Sydow
Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell
When did manipulation become such a dirty word? Art after all is designed after the very concept of manipulation; whether it is to manipulate elements that become art (concept which goes from painting to the precise position of frames while editing films) or to provoke a reaction from audiences, artists throughout the ages have attempted to manipulate us into thinking, feeling or seeing differently.
It results quite baffling then that people often find themselves so surprised to "discover" an art piece is trying to manipulate them. Isn't this after all what is expected? Even those artists whose entire oeuvre is meant to provoke indifference, are asking something from their audiences.
Throughout his career, Stephen Daldry has been accused of being a manipulator who relies on specifically engineered elements to elicit pre-fabricated praise, stick to the whims of his producers and more often than not rake in some awards.
This shouldn't speak about Daldry's work more than about the industry he's working in, one where he has proved himself to be a highly efficient worker whose mastery of the medium reminisces the work being done by countless filmmakers during the studio system era. Perhaps this is what bothers most people about Daldry's success: his kind of machine-like filmmaking seems like it's set itself out there to invalidate the concept of auterism.
If so, such is the case with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's
eponymous novel in which Daldry makes a case for his precise taste and manipulation abilities without trying to create something that remotely resembles a personal signature.
His movie is composed of quirks and settings that have worked before and therefore work again (the frenetic editing of Amélie, a musical score that evokes Daldry's own The Hours, a beautiful work of cinematography etc.) Daldry even goes as far as to extend this seeming laziness to the casting, to play the roles of two every-men (and every-women) he went with two of America's most beloved actors: Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
That these two get together to tale a story about 9/11 seems even more appalling! How does Daldry dare make Sandra and Tom suffer? And yet that's precisely what he does and unsurprisingly makes it work.
Daldry is one of those directors who is at the service of story and he concentrates on delivering just that, a well told tale with elements that work, too much, like clockwork.
Hanks plays Thomas Schell, a beloved husband (Bullock plays his wife Linda) and father (Horn plays his son, Oskar) who dies during the NYC terrorist attacks leaving his family without any closure. Oskar is angered at the fact that his mother buried an empty casket, until he finds that his oedipal trauma might have a cure when he finds a mysterious key his father left behind.
Not questioning whether this is a secret message or not, little Oskar sets out on a magical journey across New York City, trying to find the lock that will be opened by the key. Along the way he meets several characters who, like him, have lost someone or are enduring emotional pain (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are particularly touching as a married couple) one of them being a mysterious elderly man (Sydow) who for no specified reason refuses to speak.
Oskar's adventure has less in common with Don Quixote than it does with the little boy from The Tin Drum whose story is similarly placed against an unsteady historical background. Leaving behind all subtleties for an impressive, if often obnoxious, performance, child-actor Horn grabs all of Oskar's quirks and turns them into elements that eventually become believable. That he is able to both irritate you and warm your heart speaks about the actor's ability to overcome superfluous character details (he seems autistic but in old school fashion this is never alluded to in clear medical terms) and Daldry makes sure that he has enough to do around the adult actors. Watching the little boy with Sydow could've had creepy implications but instead evokes the legendary actor's devotion to his child in Pelle the Conqueror, in similar fashion, Horn stands perfectly against Hank's jolly demeanor and an impressive Bullock who forgoes all her usual movie star charm for an endless longing.
Perhaps the movie feels shallow because it doesn't devote itself to observing the suffering of 9/11 victims; instead attempting to find the universal in the specific, but touching a subject of that magnitude would always mean that catharsis would be impossible. Curiously to try and find answers within the movie would mean that audiences were recreating Oskar's journey, aiming for something higher than they can accomplish. Whether they take this journey with predisposed anger or hoping for the best and preparing for the worst is up to each of them.