'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' Hits Emotional Buttons
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
An adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel of the same name, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is a drama about 9/11, but it's also about tragedy and children -- or, rather, how children cope with tragedy and, indeed, how tragedy makes children of us all. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, in an unbelievably strong child-actor performance that never gets strained or unnatural) is a bright, clever, nervy New York kid who loves facts and detection, measurement and deduction, an avid curiosity he learned from his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks). But Thomas is dead -- lost, like more than 2,700 others, in the attack on the World Trade Center -- and all Oskar has is his father's stories about New York's 6th borough, a hidden trove of totems and the mystery of a key in an envelope, with Oskar racing to find what it unlocks.
In structure and story, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" reminded me of "Hugo," with a wounded boy unlocking mysteries in pursuit of a piece of his father to find, in the end, some kind of peace about his father not being there. In tempo and tone, it also evoked "The Kid With a Bike," where a similarly young boy races through Paris to recover a lost bicycle after being simply abandoned by his father. It also evoked "Margaret," a near-symphony of New York and pain and youth. And those comparisons, to three of the year's better films, should give you a sense of how well "Extremely Loud" plays, and how while it may be set around 9/11, it is not solely about it.
Director Stephen Daldry has made other literary adaptations: "The Hours" equally esteemed and reviled, "The Reader" a tone-deaf misfire. And there are some elements here you might imagine working better on the page in novel form, like Oskar's interactions with The Renter (Max von Sydow), or some of the stories' sketchier coincidences. But there are also some elements here that work purely cinematically, and well, whether entire subplots like Stan the Doorman (John Goodman), a Zeus-like figure in Oskar's imaginings, or brief scenes like the squalling jazz of Oskar's overstimulus at the hands of New York itself.
As for the film's use, or possible misuse of 9/11, there's visual and historical moments presented here -- buildings falling, roaring dust clouds, the Towers aflame, bodies slipping between the whisper of wind and the shout of gravity -- and yet always with taste. There's nothing here as baroque and bold as the flaming visions of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," and there's nothing here as thematically muted and far-glimpsed as the way 9/11 moved the excellent indies "The Great New Wonderful" and "The Missing Person."
Horn's performance is a wonder, a mix of the physical and the mental -- you watch his molecular devotion to the velocity and intensity of Oskar's quest burst out of his small form, hear his rapid-fire voice speaking the dense, depressed and darker twists of Oskar's train of thought -- that must be seen as one of the year's best. Sandra Bullock is strong and sincere as the mother who knows her lost husband was the sun of her smart, shining son's life, and is now pierced by loss in two directions. Hanks, liberated from the labor of carrying a film as the lead actor (just like in "Catch Me If You Can"), impresses with true craft and raw charisma. There are people in Oskar's life we meet, and they are played by actors like Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell and Adrian Martinez, and if their performances have a broad, bright shape to them even in their shadows, let it also be understood that this is a world -- in all its splendor and sorrow -- as seen through the eyes of a child.
Screenwriter Eric Roth deserves some credit, even if, as noted, some of the notes and narratives of Foer's story don't sell as well on-screen as they do on the page. Daldry directs with a too-fine hand -- you almost wonder what a New York director, like Spike Lee or Nicole Holofcener, would have done with the material. Still, he keeps his ship away from the shoals of cheap sentiment and mechanical heartstring-tugging it could have foundered on to make a drama about pain and reconciliation, letting go and trying to love, about how magical our brief lives are. What makes "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" good is its sense of goodness.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.