Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a bold and honorable film, beautifully made, and sensitively acted (especially by a kid named Thomas Horn, in his first acting role, who literally steals the movie right out from under everyone else). It is meticulously directed. It is richly photographed, with the kind of dreamscape quality that makes New York look like a museum mural. It is also preposterous.
Every talent involved with this endeavor is first-rate. Based on the 2005 best seller by Jonathan Safran Foer, it boasts a screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump). The cast is exemplary. The direction is by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot). Chris Menges (The Killing Fields) is behind the camera and the music is by Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech). The word “quality” is stamped on every frame, and as movies go, it does indeed tower above the norm. In addition, the story is a wrenching mix of hope and despair about disrupted lives in the aftermath of 9/11. So what’s wrong with this picture? Or what’s wrong with me? I was told going in to bring a box of Kleenex. But nobody around me was sobbing. It was two hours and 10 minutes long. I kept checking my watch. I admired all the good work by so many good people, but clearly I found something about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close labored and muddled, and it wasn’t just the title.
Here’s the plot, in a peanut shell. A brilliant 11-year-old boy named Oskar Schell (the remarkable young Mr. Horn, who was discovered stumping the world on the addictive TV show Jeopardy) hears the voice of his beloved dad (Tom Hanks) for the last time on a phone from the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11. Oskar’s world turns upside down from that day forward. His mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), spends most of her time in bed, unable to give her son the healing he needs. A year after this life-changing horror, a vase falls from the top of his father’s closet and shatters, revealing a mysterious key in a small envelope with the word “Black” on it. It must be a sign. The rest of the movie is about his search all over the city of New York to find the lock that fits the key and possibly the secret that unlocks the future. So with the aid of the back-breaking phone books for the city’s five boroughs, Oskar sets out to ring the doorbells of 472 people named Black, armed with binoculars, an Israeli gas mask, an ancient camera, a cell phone and a tambourine he beats to settle his nerves. Because public transport makes him nervous and he’s afraid of bridges, he walks all the way to Brooklyn to begin his quest. Here is an extremely loquacious, querulous and precocious child, psychologically damaged and easily susceptible to panic, on a mission to locate and interrogate 472 people in a New York maze that would, in real life, take about 472 years. The fact that the search ends in just over two hours of screen time is another puzzler, and for the most part, the adventure is as fascinating as it is daunting.
Then, under closer analysis, the questions begin to nag. A peculiar old mute (Max von Sydow) with the words “yes” and “no” either written, tattooed or branded into the palms of his hands, becomes Oskar’s traveling companion throughout the hundreds of miles of streets winding from Manhattan to the Bronx. He shortens the journey (and the movie) by taking the subway. The action is intercut with memories of special times Oskar spent with his dad (providing Mr. Hanks with more than just a walk-on) and the patience and knowledge he learned from their extraordinary relationship. The clever, elaborate strategy the kid maps out to track down every Black in the metropolitan area gets more implausible by the minute. He never goes to school. His mother never goes to work. His grandmother (Zoe Caldwell, in a cameo that consists of no more than a dozen lines of dialogue in a phony German accent) disappears from their lives completely. A nice little literary exercise on paper, perhaps, but I’m afraid it didn’t add up to anything convincing for me on the screen.
It seems like a waste of time to list all the ways the story fails to work, or how the daily actions (especially the geographical challenges) of the boy (and, as it turns out, his mother!) prove downright impossible—because in a film that distills the varied and decimating emotional traumas of 9/11, it’s easy to overlook the flaws. The kid carries the movie and is in every scene. It’s a monumental task and he carries it off heroically in a demanding role that requires a bright youngster who is intensely involved in the moment. Reading the press notes, it’s worth noting that Mr. Horn seems born to play Oskar; he’s a wunderkind who excels in karate, tennis and piano and speaks fluent Croatian and Mandarin. He’s never been in a film before, but I doubt if those abilities will ever be needed, utilized or even understood in Hollywood. Still, he makes this movie worth the effort. Maybe the holes in the plot that need clarification are the fault of the book, which I never read, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did not affect me the way it seems to touch others. Certainly not a bad movie, but a disappointing one. It knocks itself out trying to break your heart, but it’s too starched and blow-dried for its own good. Maybe if it had manipulated me less, it would have moved me more.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
Running Time 130 minutes
Written by Eric Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock