Critics are Wrong About 'Extremely Loud'
The critics were not kind to Oscar Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close leading to the recent feature in Paste magazine, “Is Extremely Loud the Worst-Reviewed Oscar-Nominated Movie in History?” The factual answer to that question may be a resounding “Yes.” The film, directed by Stephen Daldry, received a Metacritic score of 46 out of 100, which puts it in the “mixed or average” category, just shy of “negative.” However, opinions about films are incredibly subjective, and the harsh reviews of Extremely Loud seem misplaced. It is not Oscar worthy as best picture. But it is a good film that is not getting its due for reasons that have little to do with the film itself.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book follows three distinct but related story lines, which the film has reduced to one: the quest of the precocious pre-teen Oskar Schell (played in the film by Thomas Horn) to find a lock that fits a key he has found in the back of his dad’s closet. His father (Tom Hanks) died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and this key is Oskar’s last link to his dad. So Oskar journeys across the five boroughs, visiting a panoply of people, each of whom connects him more and more to the world he has been hiding from since his father’s death.
Negative reviews of Extremely Loud have keyed in on the idea that the film is a tearjerker that exploits 9/11 to manipulate the audience’s emotions. But I ask, Why does a sentimental movie disqualify it from being good? I remember another tearjerker that owned the 1998 Oscars with a record 14 nominations and 11 wins. And for those who think Titanic was not a serious film, then how about Million Dollar Baby? Or Slumdog Millionaire? These “serious” films played our heartstrings like fiddles and still won Best Picture.
The problem with Extremely Loud is that the sad parts are extremely sad, and critics don't like that such extreme emotion is dealt with in a sentimental fashion. But why must our movies be grim in order to address heavy themes? I've seen those movies, and eventually, you lose your desire to examine anything worthy of the name of art. I saw Requiem for a Dream, and while it is worth looking at the heavy themes, I needed a month of Rom Coms to cleanse my palette. I like that Extremely Loud is sad, that Daldry wrenches the tears out of the audience, and I like that it's heartwarming too. It's a movie I could sit through again.
The moment that critics of the film cite as the most manipulative, the part where Oskar plays the answering machine messages from his dad, who was trapped in the tower, are potent. I gasped when I read the scene in book for the first time. But just because something is sad doesn’t mean it is manipulation for an artist to use it. Interestingly enough, when the book was reviewed in the New York Times in 2005, Michiko Kakutani had no problem with the emotional content, writing, “[Foer’s] depiction of Oskar's reaction to phone messages left by his father as he awaited rescue in the burning World Trade Center…underscore Mr. Foer's ability to evoke, with enormous compassion and psychological acuity, his characters' emotional experiences… Sadly, these passages are all too few and far between.” Critics hated the book for the gimmicks that obscured the power of scenes like Oskar with the answering machine. Now critics hate the movie for the scenes themselves.
Some say Daldry exploits 9/11 to achieve the tearjerker effect. Did anyone see United 93? Or World Trade Center? Both were released in 2006. Was it “too soon” then? Both films were directly about the tragic events of the day, while Extremely Loud is more about a young boy’s grief. The lens of 9/11 is necessary because the Oskar’s tragedy, like so many on that day, was communal, not personal. The story would not be the same if his dad had died of cancer or was hit by a city bus. Many were forced to share their grief over the events of that day, and the parade of characters Oskar visits in the movie expresses the unity of the city over 9/11. Oskar’s grief is everyone’s grief. So why not use 9/11? If it’s too soon, when will it be ok for artists to dive into what happened that day?
Daldry was working with the material he was given, but what about his directorial choices? Could he have toned it down a bit? In one scene Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) is looking out her office window at the burning towers while on the phone with her husband, whom she is learning is trapped inside. Was Daldry throwing the tragedy in our faces? Was he being callous to think we might cry at these images, and was he exploiting 9/11 by refusing to give up the emotions he knew would come at the expense of those images? Or was he saying, “It’s been over 10 years. Are you too callous to have forgotten?” I think the film would have worked fine without the scene, but I don’t think it’s exploitative.
Perhaps if one is predisposed to dislike the film, this scene provides a convenient point of criticism. Maybe 9/11 is too fresh for some. Maybe the national wound is not completely scabbed over. So what? Viewers can choose not to see the film. But for people who need to embrace a tragedy in order to heal from it, the film offers a chance to dive into the sorrow of that day. 9/11 happened, and to show it, no matter how emotional the scene, doesn’t make the film exploitative. Just like Pearl Harbor showed audiences scenes of battleships exploding, at some point we will be removed enough from 9/11 where images of the towers burning will be merely historical garnish. At this point, cries of “exploitation!” will be irrelevant. Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re going to pan a film, your criticism should be relevant no matter how long ago the film was released. Those who say Extremely Loud is exploitative eventually will lose a point in their argument.
I agree with the sentiment in the negative reviews. Sorrow for sorrow’s sake is manipulative. Using a national tragedy for marketing purposes is exploitative. The critics aren’t wrong to think these things, but they are wrong to think Extremely Loud is guilty of either of these violations. Many children lost fathers (and mothers) on 9/11, and Extremely Loud shows audiences this sadness because, though the story is fiction, the emotions are true. How can we begin to cope with unreasonable loss if we overlook the depth of sorrow that underlies that loss? On the contrary, I think it is emotionally manipulative to gloss over the sadness, like so many films did in the aftermath of 9/11, erasing scenes of the towers from frames in the name of “too soon.”
Extremely Loud uses its source material well, condensing a long, complicated plot into one story of a boy finding community through a personal tragedy. I wonder if critics don’t like the film, or if they simply did not, as so many did not, like Foer and his book? There is plenty to criticize in the film. The climactic scene where Oskar discovers the lock that fits his key is too long and lackluster. Daldry relies too much on voiceover to tell the story. And he underuses both Hanks and Bullock, whose increased presences could have tempered some of Horn’s annoying precociousness. But the negative critics haven’t keyed in on these aspects. The film should not win an Oscar, but it deserves to be on the ballot. Even though the criticism is extremely loud, the film gives us a view of humanity that hits extremely close, and for that it is a success.