The 9/11 terrorist attacks may eventually serve as source material or inspiration for dozens of movies, fact-based and fictional, just as World War II and the Kennedy assassination have. But so far, with only a few exceptions, filmmakers have been hesitant to address the subject directly. To their credit, they’ve been even more cautious about using 9/11 as the background for a story that didn’t need to be about 9/11. Ten years later, the general policy is still that movies don’t mention 9/11 explicitly unless there’s a good reason for it.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” might be the first major film to break that unspoken rule, and I’m not sure it even knows it’s doing it. For while this is the story of a young boy whose father died in the Twin Towers, it’s really just about finding closure and moving on after a senseless and unimaginable loss. Nothing about the drama’s execution suggests that it is, at its core, a September 11th story. The kid’s dad might just as well have died in a car accident.
The thing is, I enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s poignant 2005 novel. It felt like a 9/11 story, not like a story about grieving that happened to use 9/11 as the backdrop. Somehow it lost that flavor in its transition to the big screen — maybe because so many of the boy’s interactions with fellow New Yorkers, which contributed thematically, had to be cut for time. What we’re left with, as adapted by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “Munich”) and directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours”), is a well-meaning but perfunctory story that doesn’t justify its use of what the boy calls “the worst day.”
The boy, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), is an unusually precocious 11-year-old who almost certainly has Asperger’s syndrome, though the movie devotes one line of dialogue to establishing that he doesn’t. (But really, he does.) He’s bright and methodical, has a mind for details and figures, and isn’t very good at reading other people’s feelings. His adoring father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), used to create elaborate scavenger hunts for him to test and strengthen his mind, and the two were inseparable. (We see them in flashbacks interspersed throughout the film.) Thomas died on 9/11, leaving behind not just Oskar but a grief-stricken wife, Linda (Sandra Bullock), and an elderly German mother (Zoe Caldwell).
Now, some months later, Oskar finds a small envelope in his father’s coat pocket, and in this envelope is a key. Written on the envelope is the word “BLACK,” which Oskar decides is a name. Desperate to maintain any remaining connection he has to his father, Oskar resolves to find the lock that goes with the key, first tracking down this “BLACK” person.
This leads Oskar to have numerous encounters with strangers (whom he usually avoids) and to travel all over the city (ditto). His experiences tend to be overly precious, as when he meets one Abby Black (Viola Davis) and has a conversation with her about elephant tears while her husband moves out of their house. Nothing about the exchange is plausible. Not a bit of it feels like real life. The same goes for his subsequent meetings with horseback riders, people in prayer circles, a deaf man, and all the others who appear in his Searching For The Lock montages.
Things start to look up when Oskar meets the elderly man (Max von Sydow) who rents a room from his grandmother. Simply called the Renter, the mysterious old fellow doesn’t speak, but uses hand signals and notepads to communicate. He accompanies Oskar on some of his travels and helps him to feel more comfortable doing things like using public transportation.
Oskar narrates the film in his distinctive, numbers-obsessed, nerd-in-training motormouth fashion. I find him sympathetic and fascinating, and I’m curious to see what becomes of the intense young actor who plays him. But the character can rub people the wrong way. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to who dislikes the film — and there are many who dislike it a lot — cites Oskar as the deal-breaker, finding him irritating and obnoxious. I didn’t have the same reaction, but I can see how someone who doesn’t like the kid wouldn’t be able to tolerate the movie.
Even as one who likes the kid, I didn’t feel the emotional catharsis that the film obviously intended. The boy’s mother disappears for most of the film, and the explanation for it is contrived and false-sounding, a disappointing end to what could have been a sweet subplot about Oskar and Mom bonding after their loss. The old man who doesn’t talk disappears too, for no good reason. Oskar keeps being left alone to flounder through his grieving process, and it’s all just a little too fanciful and unrealistic to be satisfying.
I don’t think the film is disrespectful to the memory of those who died on 9/11, because I think the film is earnest. Misguided, maybe, but not intentionally calculating or phony. Regardless of which specific tragedy launches it, though, Oskar’s journey doesn’t ring true.
C+ (2 hrs., 9 min.; )