Dec. 22, 2011 at 10:40 AM ET
Emotional fluency and literary pretense go hand in hand in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," an affecting, well-acted tale of 9/11 trauma and a boy's effort to piece things together after his father's death. A self-conscious prestige project with weighty thematic elements, a tony literary pedigree and top-tier actors, director Stephen Daldry's fourth film is dominated by the performance of a 13-year-old with no previous acting experience, Thomas Horn, who enables his character's pinball intellect and inchoate emotions to pulse through every scene. While the subject matter will keep some prospective viewers away, many who do come will be emotionally wrenched by the treatment of loss and the interplay between parents and child, indicating good commercial prospects in most markets.
“The worst day” is how young Oskar Schell (Horn) understandably refers to 9/11, the day his jeweler father perished in one of the twin towers while there for a meeting. As seen in multiple flashbacks, Oskar and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) shared an unusually close relationship, with the dad concocting all manner of intellectually challenging games and propositions his son happily took up. His mother (Sandra Bullock) played no part in this and their distance from one another has not diminished in the year since his death, the vivid memory of which is preserved by a series of six progressively agitated phone messages from Thomas on the fateful morning that his son continues to play.
On the basis of his first two novels, "Everything Is Illuminated" and this one, which was published in 2005, Jonathan Safran Foer is a word wizard partial to bulgingly significant material and highly contrived narrative constructs of a sort that would never occur to a writer plotting an original screenplay. In this case, said invention is an odyssey on foot Oskar embarks upon throughout all the boroughs of New York to track down every individual with the last name “Black” (472 of them in all), for the reason that he found a key among his father's possessions with that name attached to it. He is convinced that, if he can find the matching lock, he will find or learn something of great significance about his father.
This trek is something one can more readily accept on the page than onscreen, especially as in a book you don't actually have to listen to Oskar carrying a tambourine everywhere he goes or see him wearing an Israeli gas mask in the subway. Fortunately, at a certain point he begins to be accompanied by a mysterious old man who has recently moved into a room across the way at the apartment of his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). The man, known only as The Renter (Max von Sydow), doesn't speak, and instead writes down anything he has to communicate on slips of paper. Oskar does manage to learn that the rangy old fellow was born in Germany and that his parents died in the bombing of Dresden, but the man won't address the reason for his silence. Oskar reasonably suspects The Renter is his grandfather but proof is not forthcoming.
The pair's road trip to the nooks, crannies and far-flung outposts of New York City represents the film's highlight. From Queens to Staten Island and everywhere in between, parts of the city are seen that represent the astounding range and variety of its inhabitants. None of them, of course, knows anything about the key, but the odd relationship between the two temporary companions is a delight, as Oskar rattles on about this and that and The Renter reacts with everything from bemusement to angry annoyance. Best of all, von Sydow is absolutely wonderful, with the great veteran actor clearly relishing this very unusual role as he darts, skulks and, in a stealthy way, mugs across town. Without saying a thing, he dominates the middle part of the movie.
The other adult actor who's terrific here is Jeffrey Wright, as the figure who unsuspectingly awaits Oskar toward the end of his journey. Portraying a man harboring his own pain and disappointments, Wright has one long scene of incredible emotional delicacy and transparency in which he once again proves his position among the very top American actors.
Screenwriter Eric Roth and Daldry shuffle the chronological and emotional deck, slipping in past moments between father and son as well as incremental revelations of what Thomas experienced the morning of 9/11, all the while building to flashback revelations by the mother that, again, are harder to believe when depicted on film than when merely described in a book. More important, however, is the the crescendo of feeling the filmmakers have deftly engineered, a wave of such cumulative weight that, when it breaks, it will wipe a lot of viewers out. Whatever reservations one might have about various elements of the story, it's clear that such an effective climax can only have been achieved through the very skillful balancing and timing of elements by the writer, director and editor.
Through it all, the dominating presence is Horn as Oskar. A non-professional discovered when he won "Kids Jeopardy" on television (he has also been a repeated finalist in the National Geographic Geography Bee), Horn has torrents of complicated, verbose, highly charged dialogue to reel off, is paired with a host of extremely accomplished actors, is in virtually every scene and must be entirely convincing as a bright, driven, emotionally convulsed kid who is likely on the outer edges of the spectrum of either austism or Asperger's Syndrome. For all these reasons, it is entirely possible that some will find him annoyingly precocious. Given his real-life accomplishments, it's likely Horn is just as articulate and intellectually advanced as Oskar is supposed to be and is therefore a perfect fit for the role. Whatever the case, it's an exceptional natural performance, entirely convincing and exhilarating to experience.
The elimination of the Schell family's Jewish background, reportedly a result of casting decisions, feels unnatural, given their history and the context. Some repeated images of the father's likely fate on 9/11 are also jarring.
Top-billed but filling what are actually supporting roles, Hanks gives the father an eccentric side that aptly complements his son's personality, while Bullock necessarily cuts an opaque figure as the disconnected mother until very close to the end. Viola Davis is very good in her brief role as one of the “Blacks” Oskar encounters on his rounds.
Production-wise, the film is immaculate, from Chris Menges' lustrous cinematography and K.K. Barrett's spot-on production design to Alexandre Desplat's multi-flavored score.