Oscar Week: In Defense Of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Tim Grierson and Will Leitch will be writing regularly on Gawker and Deadspin about movies, starting this week. We begin with defending the indefensible: praising the Oscar-nominated movie everyone seems to hate. Today, why you're wrong for hating Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Follow Grierson & Leitch on Twitter for more business.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a movie that's almost too easy to despise—not that that's stopped a lot of people from happily despising the hell out of it. An adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, Extremely Loud practically announces itself as shameless Oscar-bait: It tackles an Important Subject (9/11); it stars previous Oscar winners (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock); and there are lots of tears and hugging and lessons learned. If all that wasn't enough, it's directed by Stephen Daldry, the man behind Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. The guy doesn't make movies; he makes "prestige pictures" that mostly cater to older Oscar voters who apparently can't get enough drippy mawkishness.

If a film like that isn't done perfectly, critics will crucify it. And crucify it they have, complaining about its emotional manipulation and insufferable main character, a precocious 9-year-old boy who may or may not have Asperger's. The movie's not divisive; it's a pariah. You can find people who will defend The Artist or The Help, but if you like Extremely Loud, well, there's something wrong with you.

The annoying Daldry tendencies are there in abundance in Extremely Loud, but at least he does one thing very right: He found the right kid to play the lead.

Thomas Horn isn't one of those professional child actors. Before playing Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud, Horn had only been in a grade-school production of James and the Giant Peach. His big break came from appearing on Jeopardy!'s Kids Week in 2010, which is where producer Scott Rudin saw him and became convinced he might have the chops to play the intelligent, socially stunted Oskar. At the time, the casting news couldn't help but feel like a gamble and a stunt. But although many critics find Oskar intolerable, I think Horn's lack of acting experience is crucial to what makes the film work.

If you haven't seen Extremely Loud (or read the book), here's the plot: Oskar (Horn) is still reeling from the death of his beloved dad Thomas (Hanks), who was in the South Tower on 9/11. A year later, Oskar finds a key he believes is part of one of his dad's final brainteaser expeditions that they used to do together. (Little does Oskar know that Thomas had crafted them mostly to force his anxiety-ridden son to interact with the outside world.) Believing that the key belongs to someone in New York named Black, Oskar goes on a journey to hunt down every Black in the phone book, hoping that one of them can give him one last moment with his father.

Because 9/11 has left Oskar terrified of public transportation, he has to walk to each Black residence in the five boroughs, and there's no guarantee that this search is going to lead to anything. (The only reason why Oskar even thinks the key belongs to someone named Black is because it's in an envelope with that word on it.) But where other people have found this storyline overly cutesy and needlessly complicated—couldn't he just call?—I'd argue that Oskar's obsessive, futile runaround is entirely the point. While there's no question that all the Blacks he meets are meant to symbolize the importance of making connection with those around us—Crash won Best Picture preaching this same nonsense—Extremely Loud is far subtler, suggesting how in the face of an unimaginable tragedy people sometimes distract themselves with seemingly impossible or inexplicable tasks. Rather than being frustrated by the quixotic nature of his plan, I actually found Oskar's wild-goose chase incredibly poignant. It's a quest in which there is no satisfying resolution ... much like the process of coping with grief.

But, then again, I like Oskar, which may be where you and I part company. And when I say I "like" Oskar, I think it's important to point out something: Yes, I get that he's annoying. That's the idea. Some of 2011's most acclaimed movies were led by characters with deep emotional or psychological trauma—Melancholia, Margaret, Take Shelter—and the key to embracing those films was to understand how those traumas had shaped the haunted, often difficult people we saw on the screen. But the hyper-articulate, socially maladjusted Oskar wasn't allowed the same understanding. Why? Because he's a kid? Because he's played by a non-professional?

As the film establishes, Oskar's oddness was there long before 9/11, so it's not surprising that Oskar has only become more petulant, more obsessive, more Oskar-like after the terror attacks. Without his father, who was his emotional anchor, he's rudderless, left to stew in his logic and memorization of facts to compensate for unfathomable loss he can't begin to articulate or process. Yes, it may be too neat of a device to chalk up his peculiarities to possibly having Asperger syndrome—plenty of non-autistic children lost their fathers and mothers in 9/11—but it's hard to deny that Oskar's exaggerated desire for meaning and order serves as an apt metaphor for some people's response to recently losing a loved one. (By the way, one of the most wrongheaded criticisms about Extremely Loud is that everyone around Oskar coddles his bad behavior. That's simply not correct: Those closest to him exhibit a mixture of patience and occasional exasperation, and the people he meets on his Black quest are kind to him partly because his mother has gone ahead of him to explain his journey.)

Because Horn's never really acted before, there was no way to know how he'd manage in a major awards-season film. But I don't think there's any sliding scale on which you have to judge the performance: By any measure, he's the movie's heart and soul, and he's terrific in it. And his naturalness is a major plus. Despite how cruel and irritating he can be, Oskar is enormously empathic because there's an openness to him. When he tells his mother (Bullock) that he wishes she had died rather than his father, he later realizes he's hurt her and says that he doesn't mean it. The mother responds, "Yes, you did"—because she knows, and we know, that he did mean it. God bless him, he just can't help himself.

Normally, Daldry's movies are drowning in mannered, "weighty" performances, but Horn's is the opposite—and that naturalness extends to the rest of the cast, which is no small feat considering that one of the movie's characters never talks. As if taking their cue from their young co-star, Hanks and Bullock (as well as Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Wright, and Viola Davis) seem to be less dipped in the stately preciousness that usually affects Daldry's films. No question that Extremely Loud has its button-pushing emotional moments, but it's actually less invasive than its detractors claim. Considering how raw the events of 9/11 still felt to a lot of us more than a year after the attacks, the film's characters actually behave in relatively understandable ways.

Of course, that brings us to the film's most risible potential problem: It's a movie about 9/11. A lot of Extremely Loud's loudest detractors don't just hate the movie; they object to how 9/11 is portrayed, adopting almost a territorial position concerning what's "appropriate" or not for a film of this kind. The argument seems to be that using footage of the smoldering, collapsing towers—not to mention a few overly artsy, oblique shots of people falling from the towers—is in poor taste for a movie that wants to turn that horrible day into a sappy, quirky, manipulative Oscar candidate.

It's an argument that's so subjective and emotionally charged—especially if you were someone who knew any of the 9/11 victims—that it's hard to know how to respond. All I can say is that while I understand those objections, I don't think Extremely Loud is (for most of its running time) trying to somehow "heal" the wounds of 9/11 or offer a feel-good solution to the still-lingering pain of that day. Granted, the movie's closing stretch is needlessly gooey with its sentimental, tearful reconciliations, and I wish it were more ambiguous in its resolution, offering a guarded sense of optimism rather than the unalloyed happy ending it dishes out. But I can't deny that I found the movie incredibly affecting both times I've seen it.

That doesn't mean I can't see the film's clear flaws. There is unquestionably a lot of preciousness you have to swallow. But while it's fair to accuse Extremely Loud of capitalizing on the communal anguish of 9/11 to make its story more "significant," I'm not sure it's fair to ignore the film's genuine attempt at dramatizing the intensely personal process of filling the void within.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.