RIORI Vol 3, Installment 88: Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” (2011)



The Players…

Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max Von Sydow, with Viola Davis, Jeffery Wright, Zoe Caldwell and John Goodman.


The Story…

A year after the 9/11 attacks claimed his father’s life, young, troubled Oskar finds a mysterious key squirreled away in his dad’s closet. There’s nothing remarkable about this key, save it’s meant for a lockbox, with the name “Black” written on the envelope it was in. But Oskar gets it into his fevered imagination that if he could locate the proper Black this key belongs to, perhaps, just perhaps he can earn a few lost minutes with his late dad.

So our young hero does what any logical, determined and mildly autistic kid would do: scour the five boroughs in search of Mister and/or Missus Black and return the key to its rightful owner.

Piece of cake.


The Rant…

I work with a guy who has Aspergers Syndrome. He’s a pest.

I think he prides himself on it (being pesky, not his condition). He’s loud, garrulous, eager to please, profane and loud. He can also turn on a dime into a petulant bitch if something goes awry with his very practiced routine. He speaks in loud head tones usually reserved for carnival barking, and goes on and on about the obvious. He also has it in his head that if one of us is not responding to he repartee (read: trying to ignore him) we cannot hear him and proceeds to carry on in his indoor voice. You don’t wanna hear his outdoor voice.

Did I mention he’s loud?

Just a mo’. For those who need some science dropped on ya, Aspergers is a low level kind of autism. The guy’s quite highly functional, and capable of a normal work conversation in a normal tone of voice. He’s not antisocial, and a far cry from Raymond Babbit and his Kmart boxers. No. However if his routine is messed up, he gets all grouchy and twitchy and even louder. The dish machine crapped out for the umpteenth time this year, much to his very vocal dismay, even after the old clunker was mended. The garbage disposal hasn’t worked right since.

That’s what he does. He’s a utility man. Washes the dishes, scrubs the pots, mops the floors and does the occasional tinkering. He takes his work very seriously. Almost too seriously. The degree of pride he has in his sanitation skills rivals the discipline a Marine has towards making a bed, snapped sheets and all. Beyond that he labors under the delusion that his expertise takes precedence over the cooks. There’s a degree of truth to this. I’ve often claimed that in a commercial kitchen the dishwashers have the most important job, even beyond the chef’s responsibilities. Think about it: can’t cook nothing without clean pans, right? Right, hence the guy’s overarching pride and free lip-flapping about it. The guy’s a pest.

It’s the nature of the Aspberger beast. The signature behavior of the condition is vigilance in maintaining a routine. That vital routine. If there’s an interruption, those who suffer from this condition can get thoroughly unhinged. It’s all about ritual, like most levels of autism. Recall in Rain Man how aggro Dustin Hoffman got when his TV schedule torn asunder. Aspergers is kinda along those curves, but not out of protection but more for a sense of stability. Until it isn’t.

Now I’m no expert (but I’ve seen them online), and regrettably like most folks what they know of autism is either through Rain Man or Jenny McCarthy, but me being an armchair sociologist I’ve got—and learned through experience thanks to my boisterous co-worker—what divides blown out autism from Aspergers is patterns. Either creating them to drown out the noisome world, a world beyond control and maybe comprehension or maintaining them in order to get through the day. The second isn’t too far removed from the rest of us “normal” people. We follow our own patterns every day. It’s called a routine. Maybe you have one. Maybe I need one. Does The Last Of Us 2 every weeknight at 7.30 (after Jeopardy!, natch) count? Thought not.

However, I think (think, mind you) there’s a third kind of pattern the Aspergers affected follow. Pattern seeking. Keeping an eye out for how maybe A may lead on to B and then on to C and so on. Further trying to make sense of their environment as a mission, where as we kinda bounce between situation to situation. When we drink too much coffee we bolt for the bathroom. We don’t wait until 11 AM, no matter how much our collective bladders scream in tongues.

That makes no sense, but finding a pattern, no matter how minor (or even non-existant) creates a sense of control, even if such control controls nothing. To seek a pattern that may or may not be there is a test of one’s mettle; to make sense of the senseless. Nothing is random. There’s a meaning to everything, if only in the Aspergers mind. This lets the day roll on by.

Take Oskar Schell, for example…


Since the 9/11 attacks, nothing makes sense to young Oskar (Horn). But it should. It better.

Oskar lost his dad Thomas (Hanks) when the Towers fell, and with that tragedy he lost his best friend.

He suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, a mild form of autism. His dad was tuned in to what made his nervous son tick: Oskar being ultra-curious about everything, Thomas devised all sorts of activities relating to the City’s geography, history, topography, etc. “Never stop searching,” was Dad’s mantra. And Oskar took it to heart.

Maybe too well.

A year after his father’s untimely death, with great trepidation Oskar snoops into dad’s closet, untouched by time. Inside he finds a curious blue vase, which slips through his shaky hand and shatters onto the floor. Inside Oskar finds something odd: a small envelope, and inside a small key. No clue was this unlocks. The only hint is the name “Black” on the envelope. The kid’s intrigued. Obviously this key was important to Dad. But why? And what for?

One of Dad’s missions impressed into Oskar’s impressionable, amateur urban explorer imagination was to find the “Sixth Borough,” whatever that meant. Maybe if Oskar can find the owner of the mystery key he might unlock the mystery of the Sixth Borough. If so it might mean some lost time earned back to be with Dad for at least 8 minutes or so.

So a year after the Worst Day, Oskar goes questing for a Best Day. Finally again.

Have key, will travel…


Two words: Oscar bait.

I’m not talking about the main character, either. You may know what I’m referring to. If not, here we go again you yobs. How long have you been visiting here? Really? How many hours? Ah. My bad. Now zip it.

There are movies made to make you think. There are movies to make you feel. There are movies about slobbery aliens hell-bent on global conquest but not before absorbing all the Ben & Jerry’s through their mucus membranes and eventually chomping off Aaron Eckhart’s bobble head (which might also make you think and feel something). We can only hope.

Now we know Hollywood is a business first and a creative outlet last. Marketing fits in there, too somewhere; Black Panther tee shirts made in Vietnam don’t come cheap. Wait, yes they do. Anyway Tinsel Town does its damdest to separate movie audiences from their cash on La La Land’s final product: entertainment. Thinking and feeling is all well and good so long a profit gets made. And that is the end to Hollywood’s means. They don’t expect, nay demand their goods win awards. That’s just icing on the cake, fringe benefit, lagniappe. Bruce Willis shooting things is what the public demands. And more popcorn. Lots more popcorn. And the ninth Harry Potter, God willing and crossed fingers, ya muggles.

Safe to say Hollywood doesn’t waste time and money on artsy-fartsy sh*t. Until it does.

The Blind Side. The Soloist. Crash. What do these flicks have in common? Well, they either got nominated for or won Best Picture. They were also painfully obvious, super transparent attempts to garner some statuettes come February. They starred surefire bankable casts, straight line plots dealing with heavy matters and helmed by name directors. Oh, and they were all pretty easy to digest. And dropped in December, wink wink. Desperate cries for attention from the Academy. Sometimes said cries were even heard. A Beautiful Mind anyone?

Not to say those films were bad. I saw the above and was entertained. I also felt hamstrung by lack of organic storytelling involved. I think that’s the key to any successful Oscar nom: don’t force sh*t. Don’t hammer me over the head with social commentary, try to rape my tear ducts over manufactured tragedy, rip me off, cast Jennifer Aniston, whatever. Don’t make me aware of connecting any dots.

Fluffy movies, those with organic narratives, likable unwrought characters and a lack of pretense can win Best Picture also, sometimes seemingly by accident. Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven. All got accolades without padding or pandering. Baiting.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close commits these crimes, and worst of a presented in a sort of “What’re ya talkin’ ’bout?” kinda shrug. We got Tom Hanks, we got Sandra Bullock, we got 9/11. What more could you need?

Cohesion, for one.

You get the feeling of how a lot of disparate elements were shoehorned into Loud‘s plot, which is pretty aimless to begin with. All through the first act I kept asking myself, “What is going on here?” Despite the story is a straight line (with a few crucial flashbacks), it keeps wandering. We get the whole key thing, right. I’d call the pacing slow. Well, that’s not quite right. Patient is a better word. You have to have some to get through to the second act.

Cobbled together how? Well, first of all our “lead” Hanks. The teaser. Also the Maguffin that sets things in order and not the key (by extension, Hanks is the key as far as Oskar is concerned). Hanks is a terrific, fun actor. Our generation’s Jimmy Stewart. The star of such classic Americana like Big, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. Wonderful films. With that CV alone no shocker he built up his acting chops to win a pair of Oscars. Good for him. Far cry from Bosom Buddies I tell ya.

So we’re fishing for Oscars. What’s Hanks up to? Wake him up. Dustbust the cheetos off his sweater. The guy who did Billy Elliott? I’m in. How much screen time? What? Um, okay. Gimme the cheetos.

Hanks spends about maybe 15 minutes in the movie, half of them in flashbacks. Audience suckered? Check. His is nothing but a glorified cameo. Admittedly, Hanks makes the most of those precious minutes. His Thomas plays as mature Big (albeit kinda flat), fully engaged in his son and always applying Oskar’s “condition” to his benefit. Wide-eyed wonder stunted by anxiety. Turn a negative into a positive. Thomas is the one guy in the galaxy that gets his son, and Oskar’s is keenly aware of this fact. Even though we have Hanks for precious little time, it’s time well worth having. Even if it’s only a tease.

The flip side (or should I say “blind” side. Heh) is our supporting actor, Bullock. Not a real big fan of hers.  Everything since Speed has been meh. Take it or leave it. She’s a solid actor, don’t get me wrong. Sort of journeyman, though. Here’s the check, play rom-com/action/drama/sci-fi/fantasy/snuff film/whatever. Sure, she has range. Too bad it’s all the same. She’s reliable, and a lot of times I feel underused. Like here in Loud she is painfully underused, if at all. She’s just wallpaper for the first two acts, and makes a poor grieving widow that. It’s tough to invest yourself in a leading character if said character isn’t there. I mean in the Gertrude Stein sense, doy. Bullock’s presence was the break glass in case of an audience’s waning attention span. Strike two.

Another gimmick to get the Academy’s attention: debut role of a child actor. It worked for Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal and the moppet that was Ricky Schroeder before he grew up and threw himself into populist doggerel. Horn holds his own well enough, but his Oskar is unlikeable. Insufferable would be a better word. Now I know I gave the lowdown on how Aspergers makes a person poised to be overly affable and cranky in the same breath. I never experienced “royal pain in the ass” from my co-worker. For most of Loud I couldn’t stop asking, “Will I ever be down with Oskar?” Nope, and my inability to engage with Oskar made his quest not engrossing but more along the lines of a Python-esque “Get on with it!” The reason behind why the above actors worked because their roles were not precocious or saccharine but endearing. Oskar is none of these things, just a pain. Strike three.

Oops. We’re losing crucial ground here in search of a statue. Our leads dash any sense of wonder that goes along with the (admittedly interesting but still hampered) plot line. Like I spoke about above, we’re seeking patterns in Loud. Trying to make sense out of the chaotic world. Horn’s Oskar may be a pain in the ass, but he’s at least an interesting pain in the ass. That only goes so far. As I said, the plot is a straight line and made kinetic/muddled by Oskar’s fractured view of the world. What the disturbed kid needs is a foil. Someone to aid him in his quest and help put things in perspective.

Help is on the way.

He shows up in the middle of the second act, and just in time. Max Von Sydow’s mute renter is just what the doctor ordered for Loud. Sydow was nominated for Best Supporting Actor here, and what I saw he was the only one who deserved mention. I never knew how great an actor the man was until I had to watch his face, that craggy, haunted face. He saves the movie from itself I felt. Here’s an honest soul who speaks volumes without speaking. His backstory is steeped in finding, maintaining patterns also. There’s the scene when Oskar meets the renter and fast learns of his curious condition (his troubles with communication reflects Oskar’s) via the notebook he scribbles in to “speak.” Oskar takes note of the hundreds upon hundreds of old notebooks climbing the walls in the renter’s tiny flat. Looks like Oskar’s not the only one who can’t let go of the past and is having trouble what path to follow towards the future.

Of such dysfunction bonds are borne. The renter manages to coax a bit of the kid in Oskar. There’s curiosity, intellect, anxiety and a quest for purpose. The stuff Thomas tried to imbue in his awkward son. Sydow gets this, and assisting Oskar in his quest might help the boy better understand the big, bad, chaotic world. If it weren’t for Sydow’s performance, Oskar would just be a snot and we’d have nothing to hang onto with Loud. Once the renter takes center stage the whole tenor of the film changes. One I enjoyed watching, if only for a limited time.

Speaking of limited time in the good acting department, Loud‘s casting director was very wise to cast Wright as REDACTED. I love Wright. I think he’s been great in every film I’ve seen him in, even the ones that were lame. The guy is very versatile. Although the scene he’s in is technically not the final scene, it was. It presented a sense of closure to Oskar’s mission, and if there is a message to Loud it’s that closure doesn’t exist. The whole cast is wandering, looking for logic that’s not there, nor ever will be. Wright’s hangdog and eventual glow speaks volumes for a bored audience. Considering that, maybe director Daldry was just trolling us all along. Well, minus the bait-and-switch with Hanks. Looking for hope leads nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we stop searching.

It’s been said that the point of a journey is not to arrive (yeah, yeah. Rush lyric. Shaddap). As we follow Oskar up and down the boroughs, looking for helpful patterns, Loud insists at a lot of messages beyond the futility of closure. What is this movie all about? Redemption? Learning how to stop grieving? Learning how to grieve? A maudlin celebration of NYC’s diversity? Oxymorons? Once I was lost, then yadda yadda yadda? Can’t say anything for sure here. All I knew for sure was that Loud was two hours and three minutes of my life I wanted back. Maybe that and Hanks.

You don’t have to be mildly autistic to connect the dots with Loud. Might help. Might also help if Hollywood quit trying to openly dupe us with the carrot and the stick.

Oh, and that ever elusive statue. Need one? Go check out the local cemetery.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Don’t get baited.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as trouble today.”
  • “Schell” is German for “ringing.” As in your ears.
  • Either Oskar better have Aspergers otherwise he’s just really f*cking annoying. Great acting? Toss up.
  • Released on the tenth anniversary, no less.
  • “We need to talk.” “About the mausoleum?”
  • Was that the Wendy’s girl?
  • “I just wanted the lock.”
  • That goddam tambourine.

Next Installment…

Good news! Justin Long and his friends got Accepted into the college of their choice!

Well, of their making would be more accurate.


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