Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a 9/11 film, but it doesn’t have to be a “9/11 Film.” It’s the story of a socially maladjusted young boy coping with his own personal grief in the wake of a universal tragedy, about fathers and fatherhood. But filtered through 9-year-old Oskar Schell’s eyes the entire thing is like a series of disparate photographs collected at rummage sales, shuffled together randomly and tried to fit together like puzzle pieces from three different jigsaws. It’s a sad and strange and sometimes funny tale. Only, nobody told director Stephen Daldry that, and so he puts that goddamn Sarah Maclachan song from the pet tragedy videos on loop and has Oskar sit next to you whispering in a constant melancholy narration like he was Haley Joel Osment telling Bruce Willis he sees dead people. It would have worked, had he and screenwriter Eric Roth not made Oskar such an unbearable little shithead. In the novel, our young hero is presented as almost Aspergerish, a quirky little weirdo who says sweet and horrible things because he doesn’t understand any better. In the film, Oskar comes across as brittle and snotty, and all the sweetness gets sucked out for sour and shrill. It’s like drinking what you thought was 7Up and turns out to be a cup of vinegar. And since Oskar is our hero for the entire film, it’s difficult to root for him, because he’s such a fucking pest. So when they give him his Billy Elliot moment of springing in the air in freeze frame, you kind of hope it’s right before he gets rundown by a crosstown bus. Him and his fucking tambourine.
God, how I long to be there for the folks who line up thinking, “Oh, look, it’s a story about a little sad boy with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock” and are expecting Sleepless in Seattle. Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn) is an awkward little boy growing up in New York. He talks to his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) on a walkie-talkie, has business cards that read “inventor” and “Francophile,” and shakes a tambourine every time he feels nervous. His father Thomas (Tom Hanks) is a jeweler who tries to get Oskar out from under his … shell (metaphors, gotta fucking love them) by engaging him in wild scavenger hunts across Central Park in an effort to find the lost 6th borough of New York. His father’s a silly and quirky guy, too, a romantic who loves his wife (Sandra Bullock) and his son and is trying to gentlly goad him into normalcy without shoving him. And then he dies on the top floors of one of the World Trade Center buildings.
In the year following the tragedy, Oskar finds a key in a small blue vase in a small envelope marked “Black.” Thinking this was a clue left by his father, Oskar sets out on a seemingly impossible secret quest to find the lock that this key belongs to. He doesn’t tell his mother or grandmother, but sets off across the city on a walkabout, meticulously cataloging every person in the phone book in New York named “Black.” He gathers their stories, their own personal pains, and pastes them along with photographs in a research journal. He is joined for part of this journey with the mysterious Renter (Max Von Sydow) who shares his grandmother’s apartment, an elderly mute who communicates only through scribbling in notebooks.
The film plays out like a terrible version of The Da Vinci Code, paced by Daldry like the trailer to a better film that he doesn’t have the time to pay attention to either. Hanks is clearly in a different movie, mugging and juking in an accent that sounds as if JFK were trying to imitate Kyle’s uber-Jewish cousin on “South Park,” Barack Obama trying to mimic Caddyshack 2 Jackie Mason. Sandra Bullock was banking on the no-makeup school of Awards grabbing, and Max Von Sydow manages to look sad most of the time. I will not trash young newcomer Thomas Horn, because I lay the fault at the feet of Daldry and Roth of how Oskar came out. Even when he’s got moments of such beautiful poignancy, it gets dashed apart by his characterization. In his exchanges with Stan the Doorman (John Goodman), where he and the older man trade nonsense words that sound like swears, it comes off as a spoiled child dancing the line between bad and good rather than the playful banter it should be. Being on Oskar’s side in the film is a little like trying to watch Paris Hilton play Cinderella. No matter how good the kid acts, you just fucking hate him.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s narration is something you either love or fucking loathe, and they’ve yet to find a way to adapt it to the screen properly. The filmmakers always lean too heavily on the sadness and underplay the humor. For Christ’s sake, this is a kid who refers to his sadness as having “heavy boots” and who conducts interviews while casually banging a tambourine. It should be a little ridiculous, like Life is Beautiful. Instead, it kind of feels like Paul Simon trying to sing Toby Keith. It’s playing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as a searing rock ballad; it just don’ t fly. And while the film has those small moments of heartrending beauty, it’s too safe to go into the darkness. The final pages of Safran Foer’s book — still images of a man toppling from one of the towers as they collapse — haunt me. This film just feels like a cheap copy, dashed off to sell prestige, and it’s a crying shame.