At The Movies: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the few films dealing with the aftereffects of 9/11, has become controversial because some influential film critics, cynical to the point of absurdity, have disparaged it as “sentimental”–you know, because it has deep emotions and portrays uncomfortable things like grief.

I loved the film. It made me think, it made me feel. I laughed, I cried and fell hopelessly in love with the city of New York and its resilient, brave, quirky people. I am thrilled that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Like all complex films, Extremely Loud requires patience from viewers and like all fantasies it requires a suspension of disbelief. Think of it as a journey through the stages of grief, starting with rage and denial–and ending up, after a lot of heartbreak–in the peace of acceptance.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a 9-year old boy genius who lives in a high-rent apartment in Manhattan. He is loved by his parents and his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), who lives across the alleyway–but everyone else wishes he would disappear. Suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, Oskar is obsessively intelligent about things, but clueless about people and the social graces a society requires. He’s rude, abusive, insulting, foul-mouthed, arrogant and humorless–and that’s just on a good day. One of his regular objects of scorn is the desk attendant (John Goodman) in the apartment building lobby.

Oskar is terrified of everything–objects with wings like birds and airplanes, lines in a sidewalk, bridges, trains, crying babies, people with bad teeth–the list is endless. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Because the sound of a jingling tambourine calms him, Oskar takes one everywhere and shakes it all the time.

Dad, charismatically played by Tom Hanks in a few early scenes, is dedicated to helping Oskar gain the skills he needs to live in the world. He creates exciting “Reconnaissance Expeditions,” where Oskar must solve complicated treasure hunts that satisfy his intellectual curiosity and force him to talk to people to get his clues. Together they devour maps and arcane facts about the city’s history and keep illustrated logs of their adventures. Sandra Bullock, in a tough, touching portrayal, is Mom, loving her son but knowing she is second best since he is so fixated on his father.

For Oskar, everything has to make sense. All the details of life must be logical. Anything that is illogical has to be fixed. So when his father is killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Oskar must make sense of that impossible tragedy. When he finds a key in his father’s closet, he becomes convinced it is a clue in a reconnaissance expedition his father was planning but didn’t have the chance to start. Oskar believes that if he finds the lock, his father will come back to him.

The key was in an envelope with the name “Black” written on it. So Oskar sets out to find every person in New York city with the last name of Black–hundreds of people. To say it’s an impossible task is to put it mildly, but then nobody’s as committed to his goals as Oskar is. He researches each of the people named Black, travels to their houses, bangs on their doors, shows them the key and pushes himself to look at them and ask if they know what lock it goes into. Touched by his story, the people named Black insist on sharing their stories with him. For three years Oskar searches.

Meanwhile an enigmatic old man has come to live in a room in his grandmother’s apartment. The man (Max von Sydow) whom Oskar calls “The Renter,” was so traumatized by what happened to him in Dresden in World War II, that he refused to speak and communicates now only by writing notes. In halting steps, Oskar and The Renter help one another face their demons. .

I can’t possibly reveal the ending. Let’s just say it’s not logical and it makes perfect sense.

Stephen Daldry, who directed one of the best films in recent years, The Reader, gives Extremely Loud a patina of historical importance that takes the 9/11 tragedy beyond the confines of the city, or the country. Oskar is all children who refuse to accept death. His mother is all women who grieve. The Renter is the silent witness to the horrors that human beings can deliver to one another, whether it be in bomb-destroyed Dresden or the plane-destroyed World Trade Center towers. And the people of New York–ah, those fascinating characters — they are the people everywhere who pick themselves up after calamities, dust off the debris from those who have fallen around them, and hug the survivors.

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