You need lots of gifted people chasing after the same bad idea to make a movie as colossally misguided as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This sort of train wreck is not the result of ordinary hackwork, or even mere incompetence. This is a failure on a much larger, deeper scale, an example of what can happen when artists view themselves as superior to ordinary people and decide to come down from their perch and impart their wisdom on the masses.
The movie is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, one of the first works of fiction to tackle the enormity of the World Trade Center attack. In adapting the book, screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) has compressed some subplots and eliminated several characters, but the central hook remains the same: A year after the death of his father on Sept. 11, the young Oskar Schell discovers an envelope in his parents’ bedroom with the word “black” written on it and a key inside. Oskar, who used to go on elaborate scavenger hunts throughout New York City orchestrated by his dad Thomas (Tom Hanks), decides the key must belong to someone with the last name of Black. So he starts visiting every person in the phone book with the name, hoping one of them has a connection to his father.
That’s an awfully precious premise, but it is also one of the most believable things in the entire film. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was directed by Stephen Daldry, who has a proven track record of turning difficult books into digestible movies (The Hours, The Reader). This time, though, his storytelling instincts fail him. Daldry succumbs to the cheapest sort of emotional manipulation and sentiment, throwing in a scene (not in the book) in which Thomas calls his wife Linda (Sandra Bullock) at work to tell her what is happening, and she looks out her office window and can see the towers burning.
Worst of all is a shot in which Hanks is seen plummeting to the ground, falling towards the camera, one of the most ill-conceived images I’ve ever encountered in a movie. When the question “Too soon?” started circulating after Hollywood began exploring 9/11, this is exactly the sort of thing people feared: Filmmakers exploiting real-life pain and suffering for the sake of movie tears.
On the page, Oskar came off as an intensely intelligent and curious boy who wrote fan letters to Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall, had an encyclopedic knowledge of random facts and was struggling to come to grips with the death of his father. On the screen, Oskar is played by Thomas Horn, a first-time actor who was cast after his successful run on TV’s Jeopardy. Horn is good at depicting the character’s inability to accept his father’s fate: He uses his restless creativity and energy as ways to avoid confronting what has happened, and he shows us how his quest becomes a way for him to maintain a connectin with his Dad.
Some people may find the performance too precocious and mannered, but I liked the way Horn played Oskar’s defiant eccentricity – he’s a fiery pinwheel of a kid. The best moments in the film are all about grown-ups learning how to deal with this impetuous boy on his own terms, including the scenes featuring Max Von Sydow as a grandfather who has taken a vow of silence, and especially Jeffrey Wright as a man who may be the answer to Oskar’s riddle.
But good performances can’t save a movie this artificial and off-putting. Foer’s fanciful touches, like Oskar’s fondness for the tambourine, become grating and obnoxious when captured on film. The script flubs a critical element of the story — the answering machine messages Oskar found when he came home on Sept. 11 — which robs the plot of a sense of mystery. And as pleasant as Hanks and Bullock can be, watching them coast on their likable personas is just another example of how the film renders an extraordinary tragedy into something banal. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn’t just a bad movie: It’s also offensive and patronizing, in a way that makes you angry.
Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis, John Goodman.
Director: Stephen Daldry.
Screenwriter: Eric Roth. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Producer: Scott Rudin.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 130 minutes. Mild vulgar language, adult themes, shameless manipulation. Opens Friday Jan. 20 at area theaters.