Saturday, January 21, 2012

Extremely Good, Quite Surprising

Because my daughter recommended it and because she has a golden gut, I was prepared to love Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, about a boy named Oskar who loses his father in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

When I didn’t love the novel, I began bracing myself for the film. Would it be another disappointment despite positive pre-Oscar buzz?

But again I was surprised, this time by love. Director Stephen Daldry—who made another film I admire, The Hours—has turned Foer’s acrobatic but nihilistic literary novel into a gut-wrenching 129-minute journey to hope.

And Katie loved it too.

The book’s plot is mostly preserved. Oskar’s father was trapped on a top floor during the attacks on the World Trade Center, and he died when the building collapsed. In voice-over a year later Oskar tells us that if the sun died, it would take us eight minutes to find out. Now, he says, his father’s eight minutes are running out. Oskar is losing touch with him.

Then he finds a key among his father’s possessions that he thinks might somehow bring his father back, or closer, and the boy embarks on a quixotic quest to find the lock that fits the key. His search brings him into contact with a strange man who rents a room in his grandmother’s apartment across the street, and with nearly 500 other characters, all named Black. The boy’s journey reaches a shattering climax when, frustrated beyond endurance, he trashes his mother’s kitchen. The violent scene builds to a prolonged primal scream that feels like a cry for all that America lost on 9/11.

But here the film parts ways with the novel and makes a strikingly different judgment about the same basic events. As I wrote in my post on the novel, “the philosophical backdrop for Extremely Loud is a nihilism buttressed by Oskar’s most admired book, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s book gives Oskar ‘incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn’t even matter if I existed at all.’”

The figure looming behind the film is not Stephen Hawking but Tom Hanks, who plays Oskar’s father in flashback. Today’s Jimmy Stewart is a presence constantly hovering, and Sandra Bullock, as Oskar’s misunderstood mother, makes a pretty good guardian angel, as well. Contrary to Hawking’s message, about which so much is made in the novel, the film Dad’s advice to Oskar is to “notstop looking” [sic], a key that unlocks the son’s heart. Both book and film are about our search for father. In the film, Hanks’s benign presence, even in death, suggests that we will not search in vain.

The casting masterstroke in the film is neither Hanks nor Bullock, nor even the very talented Thomas Horn in his first film role as Oskar. It is Max von Sydow as the strange man across the street (pictured at the top of this post). For reasons that become clear, von Sydow’s character does not speak. He has the answers YES and NO tattooed on his left and right hands, respectively, and anything else he has to say, he scribbles on a notepad. This gives the great star of Ingmar Bergman’s classic black-and-white films a chance to show off his chops, literally. He watches Oskar with welling eyes and echoes the boy’s every emotion with his great trembling Basset-hound face. Von Sydow makes us laugh too, in a film where laughter is hard-won and welcome.  

My greatest fear on entering the cinema tonight was that Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close would take us inside the smoke-filled restaurant where Hanks’s character placed the six increasingly desperate phone calls that play a central part in the story. I can assure you that Daldry does not do so. Still, working with a script by Eric Roth, he and his film bring the shock and awe of that terrible day back to life. Then by an amazing artistic alchemy they turn those horrific events into something like grace.

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