Engineering ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’

Oskar Schell’s story would be a Humans of New York post, or an Unworthy article, or shared by one of the billions of people now on FacebookHis story, penned by author Jonathan Sanfran Foer, is one of viral proportions — the kind profiled in every major media outlet on Snapchat’s Discover feature.

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." By Jonathan Safran Foer. 326pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.95 U.S. 2005.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”
By Jonathan Safran Foer.
326pp. Houghton Mifflin Company.
$24.95 U.S.

But while Schell’s story carries many universal threads (a sort of “Catcher in the Rye” meets “The Book Thief” meets “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is one of fiction.

Foer’s hero is an extremely precocious (and perhaps slightly autistic) nine-year-old with a penchant for French idioms, classical music and random bits of scientific trivia. Oskar fashions himself as an “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archeologist, and a collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones, and other things.” It says so on his business cards:

Oskar Schell

Not written on the cards is obsessive, depressed, emotional insomniac dealing with his father’s death. You figure out the other stuff by reading between the lines.

His dad, Thomas Schell, died around 10:28 a.m. on September 11, 2001. That’s when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Oskar was one of the last people who heard his voice.

You can imagine what that does to a kid. Oskar’s wracked with guilt. Thomas Schell was his mentor and role model. They used to play “Reconnaissance games” across Central Park. That’s why when Oskar finds a mysterious key in a envelope labelled “Black,” Oskar thinks Thomas is calling to him beyond the grave. 

Oskar makes it his mission to find out what this key unlocks. It’s fatter and shorted than a normal key and it doesn’t fit in anything in his and his mom’s New York City apartment. He expands his search to include the five boroughs of New York. He’d talk to anyone with the surname Black, in hopes that they know anything about his father.

“I calculated that if I went to two every Saturday, which seemed possible, plus holidays, minus ‘Hamlet’ rehearsals and stuff, like mineral and coin conventions, it would take me three years to go through them all,” Oskar said.

And so, for the next three years (and 326 pages), we follow Oskar as he journeys through grief.

Foer engineers the tale to appeal to our pathos — knowing that each of us have our own 9/11 stories. I was around Oskar’s age when the planes hit the twin towers. For me, as well as many Americans, that image is burned in my brain — playing over and over like a movie.

Knowing this, Foer plants his mines skillfully, weaving Oskar’s story with those of WWII bombing survivors. His bullets hit their mark, blowing up the waterworks.

But as compelling as Foer’s novel is, it’s hard to suspend your disbelief at times. Oskar, your first-person narrator, is so smart that he seems pretentious. His vocabulary (and especially his French) exceeds that of most adults.

“I kicked a French chicken once,” Oskar tells a cab driver. “It said, ‘Oeuf.'”

If you’re not groaning or cracking up, “oeuf” is French for “egg.” It’s also an onomatopoeic sound that one can make when you’re winded.

But bad egg jokes aside, we’re scrambling for answers. Why would a mother let her nine-year-old son wander the streets of New York City alone — especially after she lost her husband to a major terrorist attack? Why would anyone kill anyone, much less intentionally crash two planes into two towers?

It’s hard to see reason when it’s extremely loud and incredibly close.


Ritchie reanimates the ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’

Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” isn’t your uncle’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Ritchie’s rendition is jazzier — a slick, superhero-worthy origin story full of choreographed car chases, political capture-the-flag, beautiful clothing (designed by Joanna Johnston) and humorous showmanship.

A scene from

A scene from “Mad Men.” Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) watches Robert Vaughn and David McCallum star in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Ritchie’s revival is a prequel to Sam Rolfe’s 1960s hit television series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as dashing international spies. The acronym U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law Enforcement. As of 1963, when the film takes place, it did not exist.

Ritchie along with “Sherlock Holmes” writer Lionel Wigrim invent the organization’s back story, taking the spy firm’s two principle characters and uniting them through international strife.

Brit Henry Cavill plays the suave American CIA operative, Napolean Solo, and American Armie Hammer plays his smart KGB counterpart, Illya Kuryakin. goofus-gallant-highlights-classicNext to each other, they look like a Gallant and Goofus cartoon, providing an instructive guide to counter-terrorism.

Cavill is as charming as Don Draper — a gentlemen who sparkles when he smiles. (Like “Mad Men’s” Draper, Cavill also reports to actor Jared Harris; Harris played Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.”) Hammer is stiffer, with his strong Russian-accented English and quick temper. Their staged testosterone-ridden, cat-and-mouse, spy vs. spy pig-tail pulling is the pulse of the movie. Solo trails Kuryakin on his motorcycle. Kuryakin bugs Solo’s hotel room. They trade fists and insults. But before things get too out of hand, Ritchie reins them in and lets us laugh about it.

The result is harmless fun and the boys play with great sportsmanship. Underneath the umbrella of the Cold War, they’re competing for the same nuclear missile: German mechanic Gaby Teller (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander).

Teller’s the bridge between their respective agencies and blueprints to nuclear weapons. Her estranged father is highly accomplished former-Nazi weapons specialist Udo (Christian Berkel). Udo, however, has been kidnapped by a dangerous third party — wealthy Italian widow Victoria Vinciguerra (Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki) — and Gaby’s their only ticket to find him.

Compared to the television show, Ritchie’s film is certainly more colorful (the show was originally released in black and white in 1964 before it was switched to color for its second to fourth seasons) — from its wardrobe (which includes vintage clothing) to its music. Daniel Pemberton’s fun and rhythmic soundtrack is full of mysterious, jazzy and driving numbers as well as Latin-influenced tracks laced with Western twangs. Peppino Gagliardi’s Italian ballad “Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera” (Who Wants This Music Tonight?) underscores a boat chase. Meanwhile, Vikander and Hammer do some dirty dancing in the bedroom to Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.”

Although “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” revival isn’t the most memorable or thought-provoking spy caper (Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” seems to have more substance, and I’m sure you have your own personal favorites), it’s a smooth and entertaining addition to your summer blockbuster diet: superfluous, but satisfying.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was directed by Guy Ritchie and written by Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman and David Campbell Wilson based on Sam Rolfe’s 1964 television series.