I just happened to catch two movies in the past two weeks that had similar themes around death. The first was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where a family has to deal with a father’s death in the 9/11 tragedy. Decedents is a film where a family has to deal with a mother in a coma as a result of a water skiing accident. Both have interesting twists designed to provide more depth to the film.
Extremely Loud … is based on a great novel by Jonathan Sanfran Foer , and tells the story of a boy who loses his father in the World Trade Centre collapse during 9/11. The 11 year old boy, Oskar, is either slightly autistic or has Asperger syndrome, making him both socially awkward and incredibly gifted in many ways. Through Osker’s unusual perspective we see the boy’s struggle to hold onto the memory of his father through the mystery of a key and what it may unlock. Before his death, Oskar’s father would arrange mysteries and quests for his gifted son that forced him to interact with other people. The key leads to one last, desperate quest.
Extremely Loud ... got mixed reviews. Many acclaimed the movie as one of the best of the year. Those that didn’t like it usually pointed either to the inapporpirate use of the 9/11 tragedy or the annoying personality of the boy. I feel that both these criticisms are unfair. The backdrop of the film is a 9/11 death, but it is not really a 9/11 movie. The main focus of the movie is the unique way that the boy deals with the tragedy, which could easily have been any fire in any building. When watching it, I never felt that the fact that it was the 9/11 tragedy was a dominating fact or detraction in the plot. As for the boy being annoying, this also doesn’t make sense to me as it is the boy’s unique personality which makes the movie. He’s not annoying; he’s fascinating. Oskar’s unique perspective is given full reign in the film, offering a depth of understanding and empathy which the Descendents never achieves. Add to that the perspectives of the mother and the other characters met in the quest and you have a very effective, multifaceted presentation of the emotions, confusions and desperations surrounding a tragedy. As the story is told from the first person perspective of the boy, we are party to inner thoughts, as bizarre as they are. I have to say that the acting on the part of Thomas Horn as Oskar is exceptional. While the quest is a little far fetched, it’s tied up in the end when we realize that the mother is just as imaginative and dedicated to her son as was the father.
I think this is one of the top films of the year and I would give it an A.
All the things that work well in Extremely Loud… seem to fall flat in Descendents. It appears on many Best lists for 2011, and has 5 Golden Globe nominations, but I think that it is primarily because of George Clooney being the star. None of the introspection and intense motivational understanding is present in this film, about a family where the mother is in a coma as the result of an accident. When arguing with his older, dysfunctional daughter, the father discovers that his wife was having an affair immediately before the accident, and he then has to decide whether or not to confront the lover about her impending death.
The characters are shallow. You never really come to understand the daughter, who is going through alcohol and drug issues, but who seems magically to turn into a strong character for the father. Similarly, the motives of the lover, the younger daughter and all other characters are just lightly touched upon. Even the husband is very shallow with his feelings for his wife shifting throughout the film in a way that is confusing. A sidebar to the plot involves a delema around a family sale of a significantly large piece of land in Hawaii. I’m sure that the final decision about the sale must dovetail with the overall theme of the film, but it was lost on me. The whole thing, while entertaining and cute, was a little tepid for me, and I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.
I would give the film a B