"Only humans can cry tears," says the 11-year old narrator of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. That's a fact, but it's also an invitation. Director Stephen Daldry specializes in emotionally drenched films – The Hours, The Reader – that are designed to play on the heartstrings.
Yet these are precisely the sort of pictures that divide audiences over a central question: Are those strings being honestly played or just shamefully pulled? Of course, the answer determines whether you feel moved or merely manipulated. Where matters get tricky is when the answer varies from scene to scene, and that's the case here. Mainly, annoyingly, I felt manipulated, but every once in a while something seemed touchingly real.
The source is Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, which explores the tragedy of 9/11 retrospectively through the eyes of young Oskar Schell. What makes this perspective unique isn't just his youth. Suffering from a form of Asperger syndrome, Oskar possesses an uncommon intelligence obsessively wedded to unnatural fears. He's a highly unusual and, at times, even unlikeable kid, which makes his casting crucial. In Thomas Horn, a neophyte whose only previous exposure to a professional camera was as a Jeopardy! contestant, the film has made a terrific choice. Much of this movie is artificial and sentimental, but not Horn's performance – it commands our attention.
Early on, in dramatized remembrances, we see Oskar at play with his late father who, being portrayed by Tom Hanks, must be the perfect dad. And indeed he is, devising elaborate "reconnaissance games" that tap into his son's smarts while helping him to overcome his social awkwardness. Then come the first of several flashbacks to the morning of 9/11, the "worst day," when Oskar, let out of school early, returns to an empty apartment to hear several messages left on the answering machine – the voice of his dad trapped high in the tower. In a mystery that slowly unravels, the messages emerge as the source of Oskar's enduring guilt, and eventually give rise to one of those genuinely affecting moments, the purest in the film.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only mystery here. There are many others, too many, and the biggest is the most contrived. At the bottom of a vase in dad's closet, Oskar finds a key stuffed into an envelope marked "Black." Convinced that the key will somehow unlock an explanatory secret about his father's fate, Oskar and his eccentricities embark on a mission: to track down everyone named Black in the five boroughs, hoping that someone will open this door of perception. So begins the main quest, where New Yorkers prove themselves to be largely a sweet and sympathetic bunch. Among them is a couple in mid-divorce (Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright), who manage to strain our credulity right through to the climax.
With one exception, the quest is lumbering at best, and precious the rest of the time. It's not helped when Oskar takes an occasional break to continue the fractious relationship with his grieving mother, who, as portrayed by Sandra Bullock, isn't perfect but (we sense) will soon become so.
The exception? There's yet another mystery close to hand. An aged fellow known only as The Renter is a tenant in the house of Oskar's grandmother. He's a German immigrant and the survivor of more distant historical violence – the firebombing of Dresden, which rendered him mute. Oskar uses the silent man (Max von Sydow) as a kind of confessional, telling him about the phone messages, showing him his macabre photo album of bodies tumbling, and inviting him to share in the quest. Briefly, thanks to von Sydow's superbly evocative work (speaking volumes without words), the story loses its artifice and comes brightly alive.
But then it's back to tying up the plot's synthetic threads, neatly in a tidy bow. What a frustrating film this is, capturing some of the novel's interior strengths but also magnifying the narrative weaknesses. Some may find themselves vulnerable to its weepy invitation, but most, I suspect, will be left dry-eyed, perhaps wondering if only humans can cry crocodile tears.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
- Directed by Stephen Daldry
- Written by Eric Roth
- Starring Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock
- Classification: PG
- Two and a half stars
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close opens Dec. 25.