A boy deals with the death of his father, who was caught in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a sweet bordering on gooey movie about loss.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a smart but somewhat peculiar boy. He has a hard time talking to people but enjoys solving puzzles, looking for clues and finding patterns. He isn’t particularly good with crowds (and loud noises and planes and a lot of other things, many of which, he says, bother him even more now after the “worst day”) but he is articulate and able to take care of himself in unusual situations. One of the strange situations he now faces is a world without his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), one of the people he related to best. Thomas, a jeweler, had a meeting on the 105th floor of one of the towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He called home and left messages — a fact only Oskar knows — but he didn’t escape. Now, nearly a year later, Oskar’s mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), still can’t bring herself to clean out Thomas’ closet, nor can she quite find a way to relate to Oskar, who spends a lot of time hanging out in a small cubby hole in his room, looking at what are essentially artifacts from his dad, the most precious of which is the answering machine featuring the six messages his father left on that day.
While looking at the clothes in his father’s closet, Oskar finds a key. His father had often designed elaborate treasure hunts for Oskar, including the last one, which Oskar was still working on when Thomas died, that centered on the idea that Central Park was once a part of a fabled sixth borough of New York. Oskar thinks the key may have something to do with this project or something to do with something else his father wanted him to find. In any event, it may be his last active connection to his father and he is determined to pursue it. Because the envelope the key was in had one word written on it, “Black,” Oskar begins his search by listing all the people with the last name “Black” in the phone book and making a plan to visit them, each one, on weekends. This involves him walking all over the city (he refuses to take a train) but soon enough he isn’t doing it alone. His grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), who lives in an apartment across the street from him, has a mysterious renter (Max von Sydow) staying with her. Though he can’t (or won’t) talk, the renter takes an interest in Oskar and joins him on his trips.
There are some nice moments in Extremely Loud — moments when the kidness of Oskar is forced to deal with the horror of that day or when the protectiveness of his mother and grandmother collides with their own grief for Oskar’s father. Thomas Horn might not give the most natural kid performance ever but it stays this side of cutesiness. Likewise, Bullock and Hanks are not bad. Yes, nobody wins an Oscar for “not bad,” but I was struck occasionally by how icksome these performances could have been but aren’t. The story, the dialogue, the bit parts by people like Viola Davis and John Goodman, they aren’t spectacular but they never get worse than “not bad” — so less than what you want, but more than I had feared.
Is this too much whimsy for a Sept. 11 movie? I suppose that’s one of those things that everybody has to decide for him or herself. It isn’t a maudlin Life Is Beautiful kind of whimsy; it isn’t offensive. But it does feel, at times, a bit much. Too much effort trying to fancy up a story about a sad kid, not enough facing the sadness head-on. This is not too different from how Everything Is Illuminated (another movie based on a Jonathan Safran Foer novel) handled the Holocaust. Again, too much whimsy? Perhaps but it wasn’t so much that you couldn’t find a genuine emotional heart in the movie — you could there and you can here, but there’s an awful lot of squishiness to dig through before you do. C+
Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language. Directed by Stephen Daldry with a screenplay by Eric Roth (from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (which received two Oscar nominations on Tuesday — best picture and best supporting actor for Max von Sydow) is two hours and nine minutes long and distributed by Warner Bros.