It almost doesn't matter whether "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is a good movie or a bad one. It's a 9/11 movie, so how one reacts will inevitably hinge to some extent on individual feelings about the terrorist attacks that stunned and shocked Americans a decade ago.
As it happens, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is not a good movie, despite some strong performances. Instead, it's something of an ungainly misfire - an unfortunate, occasionally enraging, mix of Hollywood treacle and twee Brooklyn literary gimmickry.
Like the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer it's based on, the movie follows the adventures of jarringly precocious but emotionally disengaged 9-year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), whose father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), died in the attack on the World Trade Center. A child with a fanciful imagination and a penchant for spitting out not-so-subtly relevant factoids, Oskar spends most of the movie searching the whole of New York for the lock that fits a mysterious key found in his father's closet. His hope is that he'll find something to help him connect with his father one more time - and, in the process, finally come to grips with the death of his dad.
The problem is that Oskar is less a fully developed character than an obvious and cringe-worthy stand-in for America - a-too-smart-for-his-own-good kid who knows a million little things but doesn't have the maturity or emotional bandwidth to understand the one big thing that matters. His quest, with its lonely key and missing lock, is an equally blunt metaphor for America's collective search for meaning in the aftermath of 9/11.
Young Horn gives Oskar a sense of confidence, and a finely honed whisper, but can't manage to turn his clunky walking metaphor into a believable person. Mr. Hanks, in his few scenes, gives a nicely understated performance, but mostly exists as a catalyst for Oskar. Sandra Bullock fares better in a thankless role as Oskar's mother, while Jeffrey Wright works miracles in a small but important part that leads to the movie's one truly moving scene.
But good as that one scene is, it doesn't save the movie from director Stephen Daldry's barrage of crude emotional manipulation. He packages the whole thing in a dubious mix of gooey sentimentality and cheeky Wes Anderson-style irony, as if constantly embarrassed by his own blubbering earnestness.
What's to be gained from revisiting 9/11 through the lens of self-consciously twee literary metaphor? I have no idea, and I'm not sure the filmmakers do either. The movie ends on a trite inspirational note, as if 9/11 was merely an excuse for greeting card uplift. If this is all they could come up with to say about that day, then better to have said nothing at all.
TITLE: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Daldry, screenplay by Eric Roth
RATING: PG-13 for recreations of 9/11 terror, some language
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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