More than a decade after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, the time is right for a sensitively made studio picture that addresses the confusion, anger and emptiness those events forced upon New Yorkers. For some, Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” will be that movie; others will reject its approach as too implausible or manipulative to take seriously. With a heavy heart and even heavier hand, Daldry addresses the tragedy through the experience of a boy struggling to accept the death of his father. The divisive pic’s prospects ultimately depend on how this late-arriving awards-season release sits with taste-makers.
Because the wounds of 9/11 are still fresh for many, tackling the subject head-on requires a careful choice of material. Daldry and producer Scott Rudin have limited their risk somewhat by adapting “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” from Jonathan Safran Foer’s generally well-received novel of the same name, which grapples with adult themes through the skewed understanding of a precocious young misfit.
Thus, although Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock figure prominently in the film’s marketing campaign, auds hoping to see the two Oscar winners onscreen may be surprised and disappointed to find a story that instead focuses on their characters’ 11-year-old son, Oskar Schell. As played by “Jeopardy” Kids Week champion Thomas Horn, who also narrates, Oskar is bright for his age, but severely impaired when it comes to even the simplest social interactions.
Oskar acknowledges that he might have Asperger syndrome: “Test results were inconclusive,” he says. The line gets a laugh, but the film leaves little doubt: Bullied by his peers and oblivious to the effect his actions have on others, Oskar has whatever form of fictionally skewed autism suits such gifted-outsider storytelling. The most relevant symptom here is the fact that the young man fixates on a task and obsesses about it until completion, all the while rattling off thematically useful facts like some sort of latter-day Jonathan Lipnicki.
Oskar’s primary preoccupation is finding the lock that fits a key stashed within an envelope hidden inside a blue vase stored on the top shelf of his parents’ closet. For no good reason, Oskar believes the key will open some understanding into the death of his father, a jeweler named Thomas Schell (Hanks) who was caught in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. Oskar came home early from school that day and found six messages on the answering machine. Daldry shows the boy’s face as he listens, processing the information as his dad’s recordings get progressively more dire.
Operating with the same sort of tough-love sentimentality he brought to “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” screenwriter Eric Roth has preserved the novel’s sensibility in keeping Oskar at the center of his adaptation (a parallel narrative, drawn from letters written by his paternal grandparents recalling how the bombing of Dresden impacted their relationship, has been omitted from the film). As such, his primary challenge is taking the modern fable suggested by Oskar’s expedition and trying to make it work in the real world.
Since the envelope containing the key was labeled “Black,” Oskar decides, as only a child might, that he should interview every New Yorker with the last name Black. The first one he visits is played by Viola Davis, an actress gifted enough to draw tears of identification in a cameo as brief as this. The rest are handled mostly via montage, a blur of faces in what appears to be a futile search.
Daldry and Roth allow auds to believe that Oskar’s mother (Bullock) is either oblivious or uncaring enough to let her son go out exploring New York City alone, with only his tambourine to calm him against the many things that trigger his anxiety. The film uses these two shaky assumptions as the basis for a pair of cathartic twists, relying on its powerful supporting cast and sheer production value — especially Chris Menges’ clear-eyed lensing of New York and Alexandre Desplat’s appropriately oxymoronic score, which treads the line between playfulness and respect — to disguise the trickery involved.
Though absent for much of Oskar’s quest, Bullock makes a strong impression portraying a mother who can’t compete with the special bond shared by her son and husband (played by Hanks as a sort of super-dad). Max von Sydow supplies an odd paternal presence as a mysterious mute figure known only as “the renter,” who accompanies the boy on his search, communicating via handwritten notes. His presence resonates, despite the fact that his backstory has been left entirely on the cutting-room floor. These actors’ work, along with modest yet touching contributions by Jeffrey Wright and John Goodman, elevate a tale that might have suffocated from its own cloying sense of whimsy. Coincidentally, the film has the same basic foundation as the recent “Hugo”: Both tell the story of a boy who has lost his father desperately looking for some last message and instead finding a surrogate family in the process. But whereas Martin Scorsese’s film speeds past the tragedy — much as Foer does in his novel, focusing instead on the need to move on — Daldry transforms the experience into a “where were you on 9/11” sharing session.
With its re-enactments of that fateful day, “Extremely Loud” plays a bit too much like one of those perfectly lit, heart-tugging segments TV networks air during the Olympics. It hardly matters that Horn manages to give such a naturalistic, unmannered performance as the young Oskar when everything around him has been so deliberately orchestrated to provoke a specific reaction. And yet, the 9/11 imagery featured — including views of the Twin Towers smoking and Tom Hanks falling through the air in slow-motion — is sure to trigger wildly different responses from every person who sees the film, leaving audiences room to take away more than that which the filmmakers so insistently intended for them to feel.
(Editor’s note: an earlier version of this review posted online stated that Scott Rudin and Stephen Daldry were in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks. This was incorrect.)