The Ultimate Gift is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. You probably haven’t heard of it. Good for you. I don’t want to imply that it’s well-made, because it’s not, but there are certainly worse-made movies out there. Little Man, Date Movie, Space Mutiny, etc. But The Ultimate Gift is a special brand of awful because it takes a little girl’s cancer and uses it as nothing more than a plot point with which to forward the main character’s journey of self-discovery. Once the main character has supposedly become a better person, the little girl dies and no one really cares. Not sure about you, but to me, that is offensive. Now imagine a movie which does the same, only instead of using a cancer-stricken child, it uses a national tragedy the scope of which is still too large for many Americans to comprehend. Thanks to director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter Eric Roth, and a passel of others, you don’t have to imagine it. They’ve made it. And it’s called Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
This film is far from the first to concern itself with 9/11, but it is by far the most tasteless. United 93 was a great movie about 9/11 because Paul Greengrass sugarcoated nothing and treated you, the viewer, as an adult capable of dealing with serious issues. Even Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Hollywood gloss aside, was largely removed from his usual visual pyrotechnics and trickery. Stephen Daldry, whose last film, The Reader, employed the Holocaust as a backdrop, has no such qualms about taste or restraint. The film’s opening moments show a clear blue sky, with Tom Hanks’ feet and hands and head slowly flapping into frame as he leaps from the Twin Towers, set to Alexandre Desplat’s tranquil piano music. This is not a moment of horror, but one of peace and supposed beauty. If that’s not enough for you, never fear; later on, we get to see Hanks hurtling straight toward the camera in the tackiest money shot I can remember.
Hanks plays the father of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy who is trying to process his dad’s death in the wake of 9/11. That is inherently sad. It doesn’t need any decoration or ornamentation to be sad; it just is. That’s far too simple for Daldry, Roth & Co., though. They approach the subject with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer to the face. So, instead of a little boy grieving his dead father, this is what we get: Oskar finds a key in a vase in a closet and assumes that it is one final quest left from his father, who often played games with him and gave him puzzles to solve. The key is in an envelope marked “Black,” so Oskar decides to visit everyone listed in the phone book with the last name Black, sure that it will lead him to the lock. Oh, Oskar also has undiagnosed Asperger’s and wanders New York City–often alone–shaking a tambourine. I ask you, how is any adult supposed to take that story seriously? This would be a children’s film if it wasn’t about the worst American tragedy of the 21st century.
Thomas Horn, a 2010 Jeopardy! Kids Week champ, is not a born actor. It’s not entirely his fault: no child, and very few adults, would be capable of playing this role successfully. Still, in a year that gave us numerous wonderful child performances (Joel Courtney in Super 8 and Sarina Farhadi in A Separation, to name just a couple), Horn’s is an unmitigated disaster. I don’t know anyone with Asperger’s, so perhaps I’m not the best judge, but Oskar seems loaded with so many quirky eccentricities that he quickly becomes a work of fantasy. And Horn approaches the material with absolutely no nuance, blaring and bleating every single one of those quirks. Like a really severe, prepubescent Woody Allen, Oskar has a long list of things that make him “panicky,” and one of the movie’s worst sequences occurs when Oskar–who also narrates the picture–starts rattling them off. An excerpt: “Speeding things! Loud things! Things with lights! THINGS WITH WINGS!” Daldry, that stranger to subtlety in all its forms, helpfully shows us close-ups and quick cuts of all those things. I understand that a child who lost his father in a great tragedy is going to be riddled with insecurities and fears and traumas, but this is not a realistic portrait of that child.
Also, Oskar’s an asshole. He is mean to everyone he comes across. It’s like that episode of Community where Abed–another character who probably has Asperger’s–realizes the girls like him when he’s mean to the other girls and can’t stop. John Goodman has the great misfortune of popping up as the doorman at the kid’s building, and is ruthlessly mocked at every turn. More significantly, Max von Sydow accompanies Oskar on his journey, playing a mute man known only as the Renter. Lest being mute seem too simple and realistic a character trait, von Sydow has the words “YES” and “NO” printed on his hands, like Robert Mitchum’s knuckles bearing the words “LOVE” and “HATE” in The Night of the Hunter, only dumb. Von Sydow, who starred in 13 films for Ingmar Bergman, and who has worked with such esteemed filmmakers as William Friedkin, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, is here reduced to holding up a paper that says, “I’M TIRED I GO TO BED.” So anyway, back to the point, Oskar is also a total dick to the Renter, who does nothing but help, be reasonable, and hold up his “YES” and “NO” hands. Again, I don’t know anyone with Asperger’s, and again, a kid losing his dad is going to lash out. Still, the way the character is directed, written, and performed, he seems an obnoxious monster.
Sandra Bullock also appears as Oskar’s mother, in a thankless role designed to make you remember that she won an Oscar for The Blind Side and now has free reign to star in other such schamltzy Oscar bait. Which, by the way, congratulations to everyone involved for the film’s surprise nomination for Best Picture. That’s sort of the cherry on top of its 9/11 exploitation sundae. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close crams in nearly every major thing Academy voters love to reward: tragedy, disability, major historical events, big stars looking sad, and a happy ending neatly tied up in a bow. I won’t reveal exactly how the film ends, but boy, let me tell you, I’ve seen conspiracy thrillers with more plausible conclusions. The superhuman feats it requires of one character are so unrealistic it’s like the movie is intentionally pulling back the curtain on itself to reveal the whole thing as one big joke. Like the cancer girl in The Ultimate Gift, once Oskar has completed his journey, 9/11 is done away with, and–BRIEF SPOILER ALERT, I guess–the Twin Towers are immortalized as a handmade pop-up book. When Bullock pulls a little ribbon inside the book, it reveals falling stick figures.
There was another movie last year, which might still be playing near you, also about a boy with a key he hoped would unlock a final message from his dead father. That movie is called Hugo, it is directed by Martin Scorsese, it is also nominated for Best Picture, and it achieves all the poignancy which Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, for all its self-important preening, never comes within a hair’s breadth of. Go watch Hugo. You can experience all of the same emotions this film wanted you to feel, without the nasty aftertaste.