Why have one emotionally drenched ending when you can have three? The fact Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and his screenwriter Eric Roth ( Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) feel the need to awkwardly and sentimentally wrap up and underline every narrative thread in their adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close represents much of what's wrong with their movie. Which is a shame because it could have been a modest and affecting reflection of post 9/11 grief.
And yet ... there are moments in the film that come awfully close to doing just that. Despite Daldry's penchant for art-house schmaltz, there is something insistently poignant just beneath his movie's surface. Most of it comes courtesy of Teen Jeopardy! contestant and first-time actor Thomas Horn. Though his character, 9-year-old Oskar Schell, is more a literary conceit than flesh-and-blood human (he is a tambourine-shaking, subway-phobic, high-functioning autistic who monologues like a graduate from the Iowa School of Writing), Horn's naturalistic performance is so unmannered, expressive, and spontaneous that it almost overcomes every self-consciously precocious personality tic Foer has constructed. Almost.
Equally good is Max Von Sydow, the mute and mysterious "renter" in Oskar's grandmother's apartment who — spoiler alert for those too dull to figure it out within minutes of his introduction — is actually Oskar's long-lost grandfather. Von Sydow not only emotionally connects with the child actor; he conveys a lifetime of sorrows with only his eyes and hands. It's a remarkably patient and generous performance that grounds Roth's overly contrived, relentlessly maudlin, and thematically obvious script.
Oskar is the son of Thomas, a Manhattan jeweler played by Tom Hanks (the last actor I'd have imagined as a New York Jew). Thomas uses Oskar's love of puzzles to concoct an elaborate scavenger hunt, in order to encourage him to interact with the outside world. Unfortunately, he's killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, leaving Oskar and his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock) to pick up the pieces. When Oskar finds a key hidden inside a vase in his father's closet he sets out on a quest to find out what it opens, hoping it's a message from his dad (a plot that it shares with Hugo). With only the surname "Black" to guide him, Oskar develops a system for tracking down every person with that name in the five boroughs (there are more than 800), hoping one will explain the key's secret. This introduces Oskar to a wide assortment of New Yorkers, each who reacts differently to the boy's arrival. In a plot twist that strains belief, the one that matters most is a couple caught in mid-divorce (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright).
Like an Aspergers-ridden angel, Oskar desperately attempts to find healing (he has a guilty secret that's dutifully revealed in the film's final act) while inadvertently repairing the lives of those he meets in his quest. The message that one life heals the next is certainly a good one, but Roth's heavy-handed metaphors fall like sledgehammers, showing (and telling us) that though we may not find answers to our questions, the journey of inquiry can often be enough. Daldry, too, can't resist the opportunity to stomp on our emotional buttons, mistaking artful exploitation for taste and restraint. This is particularly true of the bodies he shows falling from the Towers.
But where the movie-makers indulge in artifice and emotional posturing, Horn and von Sydow do anything but. Together, the master actor and the neophyte bring real heart, soul, and truth to the screen, defiantly reining in the sentimentality. When Oskar plays his father's final answering machine messages, desperate yet banal pleas from the burning towers, both actors convey a level of heartache and regret that can't be ignored. If a film rises or falls on the strength of its voice, its point of view, then Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close finds success through casting. If only this earnest-yet-manipulative film were able to rise to the talents of its actors. —Jeff Meyers
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