The child at the center of director Stephen Daldry's adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel may wear on your nerves.
There are beautifully acted scenes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the big-screen adaptation of a 2008 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, and the best of them can’t be written about in detail without including string of spoilers that might dilute the impact of a tear-jerker built around the residual pain of 9/11.
Acting aside, Extremely Loud manages to be a very mixed blessing. Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, and Billy Elliot) brings quiet assurance to material that can be moving but is also too self-consciously eccentric for its own good.
The story centers on 11-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a kid who’s forced to adjust to the loss of his father (Tom Hanks). Hanks’ Thomas Schell happened to be at a meeting in the World Trade Center on the fateful September day when the world seemed to change forever.
I had at least two reactions to Horn’s performance. On the one hand, I found him to be annoying enough to sometimes undermine the sympathy we naturally should feel for a kid in his situation. There are hints that Oskar suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, but they are not developed. Look, at his worst, Oskar can be insufferable.
At other times, I found myself thinking that Horn’s performance was nothing short of amazing, considering that he’s been asked to carry the movie. Daldry reportedly discovered Horn after seeing him on Jeopardy, and then proceeded to put him into nearly every scene in the film.
Early on, Daldry establishes an affectionate relationship between Oskar and his dad. A jeweler by trade, Hanks’ Thomas engages and sometimes frustrates his son by setting up a variety of problems for young Oskar to solve, including the fanciful task of finding the missing sixth borough of New York City.
Oskar is nothing if not persistent, so it’s hardly surprising that he concocts an elaborate project that allows him to cling to his father’s memory. Mom (Sandra Bullock in a fine performance) grapples with her own grief.
Here’s how Oskar’s plan works: While rummaging through his father’s closet, Oskar finds a key and a name – Black -- in a vase. He decides that the key and the name must be clues that his father meant for him to follow. He decides that he must locate every Black in the New York City phone book to determine just what lock this key opens.
That's already a bit of stretch, but Extremely Loud further undermines its credibility with persistent quirkiness that can make Oskar seem more like a literary conceit than a real kid.
Oskar communicates with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) via walkie-talkie. She lives in an apartment across the courtyard from Oskar's apartment. Oskar's condescending and rude to the doorman of his apartment (a wasted John Goodman). Oskar so repeatedly refers to 9/11 as “the worst day” that the phrase wears itself out. He’s spooked by public transportation, and when he’s out and about, he carries a tambourine, which seems to function as a kind of security blanket.
Eric Roth’s screenplay also introduces a character called The Renter (Max von Sydow), an old man who rents a room in Grandma’s apartment. Oskar is warned to stay away from The Renter, a sure sign that the two are destined for a significant encounter.
Did I mention that The Renter doesn’t speak? Well, he doesn’t. He communicates either by showing the palms of his hand (on which he’s written “yes” and “no”) or scratching brief notes on a small pad. More quirkiness, but von Sydow is believably strange.
The movie comes closest to something truly heartfelt when Oskar meets an investment adviser played by a remarkably quiet and palpably tender Jeffrey Wright. He’s a guy who’s in the process of divorcing his wife, an equally good Viola Davis.
Images of 9/11 to soup-up the drama, but for all its emotional heavy lifting, Extremely Loud feels too arty and idiosyncratic fully to work. At nearly every turn, Extremely Loud seems to be trying way too hard to convince us of its specialness.