If I were a prospective juror, I would flunk out of the voir dire for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. First, I’m on record as having disliked the book, which I reviewed upon its publication in 2005. Jonathan Safran Foer’s talent “gave him the beginning of a novel,” I wrote, “but did not carry him through—not to the end and not to the bottom.” Second, I can be proved to have hated the previous film by the director of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Stephen Daldry, which he called The Reader and I knew as Kate Winslet, She-Wolf of the SS. In an article I wrote in 2008, The Reader figured as one of my chief reasons for requesting an immediate moratorium on Holocaust films.
More recently, as a member of a critics’ organization, I found myself unwillingly implicated in one of those exercises in meaningless gossip and baseless controversy that are the whole substance of awards season—and all because of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The New York Film Critics Circle had set an early date this year for voting on awards. When it turned out that this particular movie would not be deemed ready to screen until after our meeting, and we went ahead and voted anyway, dozens of people took to the Internet to label our enterprise a fraud.
They may have had a point, considering that we gave the award for best picture of 2011 to The Artist. It was a decision so frivolous as to demonstrate that anything is possible, including a prize for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when thirty-one people average their opinions. The Artist is charming, delightful and witty (not to mention half an hour too long) and cannot possibly be the best film of a year that saw the release of A Separation, Poetry, Melancholia, Hugo, The Tree of Life, Nostalgia for the Light, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Skin I Live in, Mysteries of Lisbon and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (to name just ten choices, and not exactly in order). Granted, our members had seen The Artist before collectively misjudging it. Still, I failed to understand the outrage over our ignorance of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when we were equally uninformed at the time of voting about quite a few other movies—the Jonah Hill vehicle The Sitter, for example, and Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. It seemed as if the professional awards-watchers thought those pictures could be safely neglected (why, I wondered), whereas Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had been precertified as one of the best films of 2011. By whom?
That was still the question preoccupying me as I presented myself, on Christmas morning, for an opening-day showing of a movie I was now gunning for. The lights went down, after half an hour of advertisements and another fifteen minutes of previews—and suddenly, unexpectedly, the miracle occurred. Music welled up in my heart, and I at last saw that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the perfect thing-in-itself that God or someone had always meant it to be, and not the shabby phantom that had haunted my self-protective imagination. Blinded by tears in the afterglow of a cathartic spasm, I staggered down the half-empty row to hug the nearest, similarly lachrymose fellow-moviegoer, with whom I knew I would forever be united.
Or that’s the redemption Daldry would have ladled out to me had I been a character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In reality, as a mere patron of the movie house, all I got was dry-eyed impatience at discovering the picture was neither awful enough to dismiss outright nor good enough to rise above its essential crappiness.