Often when you read TV or film criticism, you see the word “manipulative.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what this word means in the two weeks since I saw a screening of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which officially opens Christmas Day, because if any film is manipulative, this one is.
What I concluded is that a manipulative film is one crafted to make you feel a certain way in a given moment, with little regard to the film’s own internal logic and sometimes any logic at all. A plotline, a character or a scene doesn’t have to make sense, because if it generates a strong enough feeling, the audience won’t stop and ask questions.
That works except for the audience members who find the whole thing preposterous, as I did with “Extremely Loud.” (And I don’t appear to be alone.) The way the characters behave in this movie, the way the story unfolds, is so obviously phony that I was gritting my teeth through almost the entire enterprise.
For example — trying to avoid spoilers here — there’s a major plot element in the movie that defies belief. And then, in an effort to explain that element, the film introduces an even more insane element. All of this happens so that you can undergo this theoretically cathartic experience, but the minute you question it, the entire film falls apart.
Another word you’ll see in TV and film criticism is “forgivable,” when a viewer is willing to let some things go because the ride is worth it. Some will feel differently, but for me, what happened in “Extremely Close” was unforgivable. Extremely and incredibly so.
I would say it was calculated, except I don’t doubt the filmmakers’ sincerity. I don’t doubt that it all made sense to director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, who adapted the novel of the same title. But I think they were suckered by their own emotions. It felt right, so they didn’t really examine whether it made sense. They meant well. Not that I don’t doubt they want their film to succeed financially, but I’m willing to believe they saw their path to financial success depended chiefly on making the best possible film.
I find myself asking whether the same could be said about Frank McCourt. Did he have the best intentions but severe blind spots, as he now would have you believe? Or was he extremely proud but incredibly lame.
I’m not willing to say that McCourt didn’t care at all whether the Dodgers won or lost. His ultimate goal was personal wealth, but that doesn’t make him unique — far from it. However, McCourt’s priorities did conflict in a harmful, cynical way. He didn’t operate as if the Dodgers’ success was a path to his own success. The Dodgers were something to exploit. And he’s always tried to tell us otherwise.
How phony and manipulative can you get?
If you looked at their past eight seasons as a movie, the McCourt Dodgers are actually worlds better than “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” But as the man behind the camera, the man who has put the franchise at such a disadvantage, Frank McCourt deserves the figurative tomatoes that are thrown his way.