'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' proves more obnoxious than emotional


What's wrong with this picture?

Something's definitely amiss when a movie like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" doesn't leave you in a sodden heap, surrounded by even more sodden Kleenex.

The movie has every intention of reducing audiences to racking sobs; plucking heartstrings with relentless determination is practically a badge of honor for director Stephen Daldry, a three-time Oscar nominee -- for "Billy Elliott," "The Hours" and "The Reader." And let's not overlook screenwriter Eric Roth, an Oscar-winner for the sentimental wallow that is, was, and always will be "Forrest Gump."

Yet in adapting Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel about the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, and its heartbreaking aftermath, this oh-so-tasteful team loses its collective way.

Initially, that may seem appropriate, considering "Extremely Loud's" focus on lost souls -- a young and achingly vulnerable one in particular.

But there's a yawning chasm between a movie character struggling to find his way and a movie that doesn't quite know where it's going, or how to get there.

Sometimes the journey proves so compelling the destination doesn't matter. Which, alas, is not the case with "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

The title refers to the cataclysmic World Trade Center attack in which more than 2,500 perished.

No wonder 9-year-old Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn) calls Sept. 11 "the worst day" -- his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks, seen in flashbacks), died in the twin towers' collapse.

Even under the best of circumstances, Oskar's a walking collection of tics and quirks. (At one point, he says, he was tested for "Asperger's disease," but "the results were inconclusive.")

To help draw Oskar out of his (wait for it) shell, the too-good-to-be-true Mr. Schell, a jewel of a jeweler, spent his off-work hours devising ingenious field expeditions, challenging his anxious son to join him to explore far-flung corners of New York City.

Now that his father's gone, however, Oskar must soldier on alone -- because he's never had the bond with his wryly down-to-earth mother, Linda (the quietly stalwart Sandra Bullock), he had with his twinkly, starry-eyed dad.

Oskar finds his marching orders rifling through his father's closet, where he inadvertently discovers an envelope with a name on the outside -- "Black" -- and a key inside.

Convinced it's a message from his father, directing him on yet another on-the-town adventure, Oskar launches a quest to find, and speak with, everyone named Black in every borough of New York. Once he does, he's sure he'll find the lock that fits his key -- and whatever message his father's trying to send him from wherever he's gone.

Initially, Oskar ventures out alone, accompanied by the trusty tambourine he shakes to calm himself on his rounds. (Just like another diminutive Oskar: the one in Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum.")

Eventually, however, he finds a companion to share his wanderings: The Renter (the invaluable Max von Sydow), who lodges with Oskar's crusty grandmother (stage legend Zoe Caldwell). Another traumatized survivor, The Renter hasn't spoken a word since the World War II firebombing of Dresden.

No prizes will be awarded to those who guess -- much earlier than the movie intends -- that The Renter isn't just a renter. Or that his presence will help lead Oskar somewhere comforting, even if it's not where he expects to go.

If only "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" had the same sort of revelatory, reassuring effect on us.

Instead, we're stuck watching (and listening) as Oskar exhibits an array of undeniably troubling neuroses. They're supposed to be touching, and they are -- up to a point. But they're annoying as well as poignant, making Oskar's journey at least as much of a trial as it is a voyage of discovery and healing. (It doesn't help that "Extremely Loud's" premise bears more than passing resemblance to the delightful "Hugo," another tale of a fatherless boy, with a mysterious key, on a mission to decipher a message from his absent parent.)

Daldry's tastefully restrained directorial style also distances us from the story's presumed emotional impact. With ace cinematographer Chris Menges (an Oscar-winner for "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields") behind the camera, even post-Sept. 11 New York emerges as a wondrous playground, one populated by equally magical figures.

Including, of course, all those people named Black who help Oskar find his way home, particularly a splintering couple in need of some definite help themselves. (They're played by the always welcome Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who bring a bit of heft to their sketchy, underwritten roles.)

Throughout, young Horn -- a "Jeopardy!" Kids Week winner making his acting debut -- acquits himself admirably, if not endearingly. It's not his fault that "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" requires him to natter on endlessly, challenging not only our empathy but our patience at every turn.

All of which makes von Sydow's silent eloquence such a blessed relief. Watching the celebrated dramatic powerhouse, now 82, convey a world of rueful emotion with such precision, delicacy and restraint provides an inescapable reminder -- as if we needed it -- of how extremely obvious and incredibly obnoxious the rest of this movie can be.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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