To process and critique "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is to be of conflicting mindsets. Based on the best-selling novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film is stalwart and precious, independent-minded yet pat, beautifully acted and with scenes of intense emotional power within a screenplay by Eric Roth (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
") that is uneven and not consummately satisfying. Fans of top-billed stars Tom Hanks (2011's "Larry Crowne
") and Sandra Bullock (2009's "The Blind Side
") will be surprised that they have supporting roles, but that's quite all right when the alternative is newcomer Thomas Horn, a wunderkind of staggering depths whose only previous claim to fame was as a 2009 winning child contestant on "Jeopardy." Horn is our narrator, our guide, our plucky confidante through a drama that uses clear narrative misdirection to get to the bottom of a young boy's coming-to-terms with the loss of his father.
Super-intelligent 9-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) has no friend greater than his jeweler dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks), who creates makeshift reconnaissance expeditions to occupy his son's curious mind. These two share a practically inseparable rapport, until the morning of September 11, 2001, when Thomas heads off for a business meeting at the World Trade Center and never returns. While mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) struggled to get home, Oskar was left alone, in the company of six answering machine messages Thomas left for him before the building collapsed. One year later, the Schell home is still akin to a graveyard when Oskar finally gathers the courage to explore his dad's closet. The dropping of a vase uncovers a mysterious key inside an envelope simply marked "Black." Solving who the key belongs to and what it unlocks becomes, in Oskar's mind, his father's final mission to him.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" was directed by Stephen Daldry (2008's "The Reader
"), a filmmaker who has exhibited in all his pictures an insight and empathy toward the human condition. Tackling the events of 9/11 is still a touchy wound to prod, but here it is treated as a catalyst for the unpredictability of loss rather than a specific comment on politics or world affairs. That's how it should be, particularly since it is told from the point-of-view of a young, albeit wise-beyond-his-years, boy. The various relationships Oskar builds are its strongest suit, most notably the temperamental one between himself and his mother and another with the mute elderly tenant (Max Von Sydow) renting a room in his grandmother's (Zoe Caldwell) apartment. Daldry aims for an overall low key to strike, which makes the explosions of outward anger and emotion all the more emphatic. When Oskar, tired of his mother sleeping all the time and retiring from the life around her, tells her he wishes she had died instead of his father, it's the sort of rash, hurtful claim that escapes before he considers just how awful what he's saying is. "I didn't mean it," he says a few beats later. "Yes, you did," she replies.
Thomas Horn and, in her too-few scenes, Sandra Bullock deliver devastating performances as son and mother Oskar and Linda, making one wonder how far they might have gone had the screenplay been pressed out a bit further. In between scenes of stark purity and touching reverence, there seem to be missing gaps in the storytelling. Oskar's mission to locate the person connected to the key he finds soaks up a great deal of the running time and, by the way it's been edited, makes it nonsensically seem as if Oskar has endless free days at his disposal, no school to attend, and a total run of the city. Speaking of school, it is never glimpsed outside of flashbacks to 9/11. If he has any friends, they're never seen. Oskar's home life is left just as sketchy, failing to unveil what he and his mother's day-to-day existence is really like. That Linda is absent entirely from the second act inadvertently suggests that she's a dead-beat parent. Even when it is explained later what she's been up to, it doesn't quite add up. As for the answers to the key, well, let's just say it's even more anticlimactic than viewers will be expecting from an obvious plot gimmick.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" isn't about a key any more than "The Wizard of Oz" is about ruby slippers, and understandably so. Nevertheless, more time focusing on the whole of Oskar's world following his dad's untimely death rather than one piece of it would have widened the scope and expanded the participation of supporting actors (like Sandra Bullock, John Goodman as a friendly doorkeeper, and Viola Davis as a kind woman Oskar seeks out in his search) who get the short shrift. Additionally, while a late reconciliation scene between Oskar and Linda is deeply moving, the effect is slightly betrayed by Oskar's selfish decision to not reveal to his mom about his dad's final answering machine messages. If one is looking, it will be easy to find fault with the framework and key details of "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" even as most audiences will have to admit that it works solely as a dramatic catharsis. The star is Thomas Horn, a first-time performer as expressive and truthful as today's best and longest-working actors. He doesn't speak to the camera, but to the audience's souls.