We’ve been waiting for the ultimate 9/11 movie, the one that will somehow, magically, cover the story from just the right angle and finally lay the ghosts and anxieties to rest. Perhaps it will never come. But at least one thing is certain ten and a half years after the fact: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is not it.
That doesn’t mean the film is entirely worthless. Its way into the story is through the character of a precocious, overly needy, nine-year-old New Yorker named Oskar Schell, played by Oakland-based newcomer Thomas Horn. Unlike the protagonists of, say, United 93 or World Trade Center, young Oskar does not participate firsthand in the violence of that day. For him the lasting pain of 9/11 is the loss of his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who perished in one of the twin towers on “the worst day.” He was a man who meant everything to Oskar and whose death the challenged kid — he’s possibly an Asperger’s patient — struggles to deal with throughout the movie.
Oskar’s tribulations are picturesque in an agreeably familiar New-Yorkish way, as if Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name and Eric (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) Roth’s screenplay have already pre-digested the guilt, self-doubt, and loneliness Oskar is going through and are now ready to share this bounty with everyone in the “six boroughs.” (The “sixth borough” is a puzzle game Thomas and Oskar played together. The boy inherited his father’s whimsically fastidious attention to detail and love of quixotic quests and clues.) The story is mawkish and heavy-handed when it clearly intends to be heartbreaking and uplifting. We already suspect that having spotted Hanks’ and Sandra Bullock’s names in the credits (she plays Oskar’s mom — a one-two punch!), but we’re willing to give juvie actor Horn a chance, to see if he can pull it out of the fire.
Oskar’s grief-stricken search for the “key in the vase” MacGuffin cuts a broad swath across the New York metro area. In addition to his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) and comic nemesis Stan the Doorman (John Goodman), Oscar meets Walt the Locksmith (Stephen Henderson), Abby Black (the delightful Viola Davis), William Black (Jeffrey Wright), and a host of other “Blacks” (the quest involves methodically eyeballing every person of that name in the NYC phone book), but his most intriguing acquaintance is with The Renter, a mute senior citizen (played by Max Von Sydow with his usual sly intelligence) who shares Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. There’s something powerful and monolithic about The Renter. All of the above are represented as kindred spirits who have lost someone or something, not necessarily on 9/11, and Oskar learns valuable life lessons from them.
Those types of lessons, laid on thick with a trowel, are the usual stock and trade of director Stephen Daldry, aka Mr. Sensitive, the one responsible for The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot, and now this mystery tour of the human heart. Better to leave the 9/11 connection behind and focus on Horn’s performance. If the thirteen-year-old actor (a junior Jeopardy champ) could arrange to have his biological clock stopped, he could make a fortune portraying orphans in TV commercials for nonprofits. It’s the face, and the voice. He and the 82-year-old Von Sydow develop an instinctive physical rapport that’s entirely lacking in the interplay with Hanks and Bullock, and the kid gets under our skin through a combination of pity and sheer irritation. That’s pretty much the best we can say about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a movie that raises compassion fatigue to heights previously undreamt of. If New York City can get over it, so can we.