I’d imagine a screenplay or a novel about grieving families of 9/11 victims must have been quite difficult and risky to write in the first few years following the attack. Now, having boldly faced the task of writing a snarky column comparing two movies about 9/11 grief, I can entirely sympathize with those intrepid, suffering screenwriters. Hell, someone had to write this Smackdown, and if I didn’t, who would? (A: Probably one of the other Smackers. There’s like a jillion of us now.)
Anyway, save the tears; I’ll be okay. Let’s just jump right into our most sorrowful Smackdown yet—at least since the one we posted earlier this week, pitting Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey against the tragic, true story, A Mighty Heart. But no, this one’s right up there in terms of heart-wrenching, yet potentially edifying Christmas fare. It’s the 2007 buddy drama Reign Over Me vs. the newly released Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Get ready to not la-augh!
Based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, ELAIC centers on Oskar Schell, an odd and precocious grade-schooler who loses his loving and nurturing father Thomas (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center attacks. Raised by his dad to have a love of science, exploration and puzzles, Oskar becomes obsessed with finding the lock that matches a key he’s found in a vase in his father’s closet, enclosed in an envelope labeled “Black.” His quest takes him all over Manhattan, visiting every Black in the phone book, at times accompanied by an enigmatic and silent elderly neighbor (Max von Sydow), and much to the passive concern of his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock).
The film’s Oscar lineage is impeccable: Beyond past winners Hanks and Bullock in the cast (albeit in relatively small roles), the director is Stephen Daldry, who has found a niche in adapting difficult, well-respected novels (The Hours, The Reader) into mediocre movies that win undeserved trophies. It was written by Eric Roth, past winner for adapting Forrest Gump, which he later Xeroxed for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And its main character is named Oskar. What more could you ask?
In Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler, momentarily forgetting how much satisfaction he gets from cranking out mindless high-concept comedies in exchange for enormous paychecks, takes on what remains the most challenging and impressive dramatic stretch of his career. He plays Charlie, a former dentist whose life was wrecked and mind practically destroyed by the loss of his wife and daughters in one of the 9/11 flights. He spends his days idly tooling around Manhattan on his scooter, his iPod blasting 70’s rock in his ears to help him tune out the world.
Charlie’s old roommate and best friend Alan (Don Cheadle), now a successful dentist and family man, takes it upon himself to shake him out of his stupor and get him to rejoin society, but at the slightest reminder of the tragedy or hint that anyone wants him to talk about it, Charlie flies into a terrifying, paranoid rage. Alan, meanwhile, has issues of his own to deal with when an unstable patient (Saffron Burrows) comes on to him and reacts badly to his rejection. The film was written and directed by the talent-challenged Mike Binder (HBO’s Mind of the Married Man), who also turns up in a supporting role as Charlie’s lawyer.
Imagine showing up to the home of a couple you are friends with, looking forward to spending an evening with them, and instead arriving to find them on their way out the door, assigning you the task of babysitting their annoying, hyper-chatty and slightly insane nine-year-old son. Yes, that’s what Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is like. Hanks and Bullock disappear quickly in brief or under-drawn roles; even von Sydow, one of the great actors of our time, is completely deprived of dialogue. Forced to carry the film on his narrow shoulders is twelve-year-old Thomas Horn, a Kids Week Jeopardy! champ making his movie debut. I’m unsure if it was his performance that was so irritating and shrill, or if he was written to have that fingernails-on-a-blackboard effect—in which case, the kid nailed it.
Apparently, in the novel, Oskar is clearly autistic, whereas in the film, it’s merely suggested that he might have Asperger’s Syndrome, which I guess is what causes him to over-articulate all his lines and come up with the mind-bogglingly silly quest that drives the plot. If you think it doesn’t seem likely that Hanks would have deliberately set up a puzzle for his son to happen upon, requiring him to visit everyone named Black in New York for clues, you still won’t be prepared for how disappointing the answer is when he finally finds it. But then another twist makes the whole thing even more ridiculous, if you can believe that.
Of course, one could argue it’s not the destination but the journey that matters, that it’s supposed to be ridiculous, because, as in the current, vastly superior film, Hugo, it’s really about this kid’s desperate effort to connect with his deceased father instead of dealing with the grief—especially since Oskar tells us that’s what’s going on pretty early in the game. So fine, Oskar knows it’s a stupid and pointless plan and so do we, yet for some reason, the filmmakers treat it like Bilbo’s quest to destroy the Ring. Daldry is a sap-merchant of the highest order who never met a shot of a young boy running while music soars that he didn’t like. The movie is cloying when it wants to be uplifting and exploits 9/11 grief instead of exploring it. Its few chilling moments come from familiar but still potent actual footage, such as that of the first tower crumbling. So yes, there are those who will shed tears at Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (a clumsy title, never explained) merely from the memories it triggers, but the only tears it drew from me were ones of boredom.
I didn’t like Reign Over Me much either, but its flaws seem mild by comparison. The film has very little plot and takes forever to get going; halfway through it, practically all that’s happened is that Sandler has thrown a few paranoid shit-fits and has run away whenever the parents of his dead wife approach, which, since one of them is played by Robert Klein, is perfectly understandable. It has an idiotic subplot that features poor Saffron Burrows as a deranged stalker who turns out to be not so much insane as just lonely and depressed, which, the movie seems to think, makes her a great match for Sandler. It has Jada Pinkett-Smith, arguably the world’s most boring actress, in a thankless role as Cheadle’s wife. It has Sandler’s character going totally loony-tunes psycho toward the end but then getting essentially forgiven, presumably because 9/11 grief is just that strong a chit.
Going a long way toward making up for all that mindless nonsense is Sandler’s surprisingly moving performance, which uses his lovable goof-off persona to mask an anger and sadness that it is terrifying and heartbreaking to see released. His monologue about the tragedy itself and what led up to it is beautifully delivered. The movie is pretty weak tea, but it’s a shame that in ignoring it, the public missed such a brave, vulnerable performance, especially since this collective shrug sent Sandler back to the likes of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Reign Over Me (another lame and pointless title, from a song by The Who, for no apparent reason), is not the tearjerker it wants to be, but thanks mostly to Sandler, it’s watchable—which, come to think of it, ranks it among his best movies.
More than ten years later, the only film to even approach the emotional power worthy of a subject as potent as 9/11 is still Paul Greengrass’ harrowing, frighteningly believable United 93. These two films are far from the worst of the lot. (They’re a cut above Oliver Stone’s wimpy World Trade Center, for instance.) But one is too under-developed, and the other is way over-cooked. I can’t quite recommend either of these, but I’ll take the modest, low-key ambitions of our winner, Reign Over Me, over the bloated, tedious, Oscar-chasing pretensions of its rival any day.