Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #43: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

After winning the Academy Award for The Blind Side in March 2010, Sandra was faced with the ultimate question: what’s next? While she navigated the awards circuit that spring, she said she wasn’t even looking at scripts, and after the whole Jesse James debacle went down, Sandra disappeared from public life for about three months. When she re-emerged that summer at the MTV Movie Awards to accept her Generation Award (where a terrific two-minute montage of her film work was screened), she said that she loves what she does, and that she wasn’t going anywhere. I remember rumors floating around that time that she was even considering quitting the film business, but such, thankfully, was not the case.

While Sandra laid low for the rest of 2010, she re-emerged in 2011 on the sets of not one but two films, both that would challenge her in ways we never could have expected. When she won her Oscar, what I hoped, more than anything, was that truly talented directors would finally see Sandra as more than “America’s Sweetheart” or the “Romantic Comedy Queen” and take her seriously as an actress, and potentially give her some meaty roles. On February 25, 2011, two days before she handed Colin Firth his Oscar for The King’s Speech, Sandra began production on her first film post-The Blind Side, post-Jesse, post the most insane time in her public life that will (likely) ever be. For the first time, Sandra was working with a stellar group of talent that included acclaimed director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), the powerhouse producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), and Mr. Tom Hanks — all in a film based on a celebrated novel. Slam dunk, right? Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, released at the end of 2011, would go on to receive big praise, and even be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards — but the film, unfortunately, is a mess, and despite some good scenes, including two with Sandra, the film never finds the right tone.

Based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn), a thoughtful, autistic nine-year-old whose best friend in the world — his dad (Hanks) — dies unexpectedly in the World Trade Center attacks. A year later, he goes into his closet, which his mom Linda (Sandra) still hasn’t touched. He accidentally breaks an urn that encases an envelope that says BLACK, with a small key inside. He thinks that finding the recipient to the key might bring him more answers about his father, so he runs around New York City and talks to anyone with the last name of Black. Along the way, he meets an old mute (Max Von Sydow, who received an Oscar nomination for his role), as well as a woman with a troubled marriage (Viola Davis).

The film is certainly well-made, with plenty of outstanding performances, and a few key scenes that ring true. The actor who comes off the best is von Sydow, whose commanding voice is ironically absent here, but whose immense acting talent comes through, particularly with a heart-wrenching scene toward the end where Oskar plays him his dad’s final answering machine messages. Horn is solid in the lead role, if a bit overwrought at times, and Davis does wonders with an underwritten part. The major climactic scene with Horn and Jeffrey Wright is also handled well.

Unfortunately, for every scene that works, three scenes don’t. The biggest problem with the movie, of course, is that the horrors of 9/11 are still so raw, and so real, that a fictionalized account of that day, about characters who weren’t really there, just feels wrong. Why should we care about fictional characters responding to the attacks, when we’re already so aware of the true life heroes and victims and sacrifices from that day? United 93 is one of the great films of the mid-2000s, but that movie puts us into a situation that really happened, to uncompromising visceral effect. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn’t as effective because we’re supposed to identify with flat fictional characters who aren’t developed enough to earn our sympathy. Of course a fictionalized account of a true life disaster can work — Titanic being one of the best examples — but 9/11 is still so recent that there better be a good reason for it. And this movie just isn’t it.

It’s not only the 9/11 aspect that brings the film down. Even if it were about a fictional traumatic event, it wouldn’t work. Director Daldry has had great success working with kids (Billy Elliot) and making searing dramas (The Hours), but Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the first film he’s made that misses the mark. His directorial flourishes are way overdone, and the sentimentality bar is always raised three notches too high. The film never finds the right pacing, with too much of it feeling episodic; some scenes go on forever, and others are way too short. The most glaring error the film makes is never making the father seem like a real, warm-blooded person. We only see him in flashbacks, mostly viewed from Oskar’s point of view, and he’s perceived as so perfect that he never becomes three-dimensional. His games with his son are adorable, and his voice messages are haunting, but the role never becomes anything more than just Tom Hanks playing a dad.

And then there’s Sandra. Did she make a mistake following up The Blind Side with this film? Absolutely not. While the film is disappointing (don’t let that inexplicable Oscar nomination for Best Picture fool you), she comes off rather well, for the most part. She was wise in taking a supporting role, giving her a little quiet time in the four years that separated The Proposal and The Blind Side from The Heat and Gravity. She only has about twenty minutes of screen-time in the film’s 130-minute running time, but she makes the most of them, with a harrowing two-scenes-in-a-row punch about halfway through. While Hanks is never given any significant lengthy scene, we get to know Sandra’s character of Linda a lot more, as she comes to deal with the death of her husband. Since the film is told from Oskar’s point of view, we see Linda in the first half as a distant figure, someone who just knocks on the door occasionally and asks if he’s okay. He had much more of a connection with his dad, so he’s not happy that he’s now stuck day to day with his dour mom. Not all of Sandra’s moments here work, with one too many scenes of her shoving her hand against her mouth and crying, and one particularly baffling scene that opens with a shot of Sandra standing in a room and oddly staring past the camera.

No, Sandra shines in two scenes halfway through that finally bring her character to life. Oskar wakes her up in the middle of the night and starts talking her ear off, asking her questions, making her finally explode at him in the kitchen. Sandra is mesmerizing in this scene, in her rage, in her mix of emotions. Linda doesn’t want to yell at her son, but he keeps feeding her anger until she can’t hold it in anymore. Probably the most shocking element to this scene, is the ending, when Oskar tells her, “I wish it were you in the building instead of him.” Instead of blowing up at him again, she says, solemnly, “So do I.” This moment is heartbreaking, and comes off totally natural, unlike so much else in the movie.

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After this, we flash to the morning of the “Worst Day,” as Oskar calls it, when her husband calls her to tell him he’s in the tower, and that he’s going to be okay. Her trembling fear as she walks to the window and begs him to stay on the phone with her is unnervingly real. Even though the scene is strange in that it’s one of the few in the film that isn’t from Oskar’s perspective, it gives us more insight into Linda, and the horror in the waiting she endured that day. The film might have been improved with a few more scenes like this, away from Oskar. Sandra actually shot a couple of scenes with the late James Gandolfini, who played a 9/11 widow and potential love interest. Test audiences apparently rejected these scenes, prompting Daldry to leave the material on the cutting room floor. These scenes did not appear on the DVD, and, especially with Gandolfini’s sudden passing, I’d love to see them pop up on a future DVD release someday. A little more development of her character in the middle portion of the film would have been ideal.

Sandra mostly disappears after the phone call flashback, until her final major sequence at the end of the film that finally explains her journey. A question that nags at you the whole time while watching the movie is, why does Linda allow her son to just roam around the city without her close supervision? He’s nine years old, for God’s sake! In the end we discover that she’s been keeping up with him the whole time, always one step ahead and keeping track of his whereabouts. The two actors are so warm and tender in this scene, with Sandra so heartfelt when she says, “I miss his voice telling me he loves me.” The film lacked these authentic quieter moments, the kinds of scenes that allow the viewer to spend quality time with the characters. So much of the movie requires the viewer to keep up with the breathless Oskar, and not enough time to allow for the supporting characters to make enough of an impression. Sandra’s final scene is simple and moving, when she finds Oskar’s book and takes in the various pages, with her reactions doing all the work.

Sandra is by no means extraordinary in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — it’s a solid, unmemorable performance that doesn’t reach the heights of her startling work in Infamous, The Blind Side, or, of course, Gravity — but she gets the opportunity to stretch her dramatic muscles and show that she’s up to the task of exploring more wounded, downbeat characters. She’s an A-list star who could have done anything after winning the Oscar, and she chose a supporting role in a film that gave her the chance to work with Daldry, Hanks, and a talented child actor making his film debut. While the movie didn’t net her any awards, it gave audiences a preview of what was to come at the end of 2013. Yes, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity was almost here.

Best Scene: Sandra explodes at her son in the kitchen.

Best Line: “It’s not gonna make sense, because it doesn’t!”

Fun Facts

Sandra was in New York with her family at the time of the September 11 attacks and had a clear view of the towers.

Sandra’s lone acting nomination for this film was Best Supporting Actress at the Georgia Film Critics Association.

Sandra and Hanks were voted number one and two trustworthy celebrities in the Reader’s Digest poll in 2013.

Von Sydow turned down the role of Hal in Beginners, which later went to Christopher Plummer, in favor of playing the mute in this film. Both men were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Plummer won.

Viola Davis appeared in two films in 2011 that were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The second was The Help, which also earned her a Best Actress nomination.

Horn came to the attention of Daldry when he won on a Kid’s Week episode of Jeopardy!

To date, Sandra has appeared in four films that have gone on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

This is the first film Daldry directed that didn’t earn him a Best Director nomination. He was nominated for all three of his prior films — Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader.

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