Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a film about a troubled boy attempting to make sense of his father's death on 9/11, but a greater challenge might be to try and make sense of this film. Stephen Daldry's screen version of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel presents us with a story built upon contrivances and implausibilities, and attempts to mine moments of catharsis for a number of individual characters in the shadow of a recent national tragedy. To negotiate such a minefield of taste and emotional turbulence successfully would require filmmakers of rare subtlety and delicacy, but Daldry isn't that director and Eric Roth, who adapted the screenplay, isn't that writer. Perhaps predictably, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doesn't work – it's messy, ridiculous and often downright annoying – but the act of filtering an event as significant as 9/11 through a story this cheaply manipulative makes it look many times worse than it probably would do otherwise.
The film is populated with star actors but the bulk of the story rests on the shoulders of newcomer Thomas Horn, making a striking debut as the precocious and borderline autistic 9 year-old Oskar Schell. Oskar's father (Tom Hanks – depicted as a too-perfect dad in flashbacks) died when the Twin Towers fell, leaving Oskar alone with his mother (Sandra Bullock), with whom he has a strained relationship, and his grandmother, who lives across the street and clandestinely communicates with him via walkie-talkies. Oskar has kept a number of secrets from his mother – most gravely, the answering machine that contains her husband's final six messages from "The worst day" – and when he is rooting around in his father's closet, he uncovers another. Inside a blue vase there is a key tagged with the word 'Black.' Intuiting that Black is (a) a person's name and (b) some kind of cryptic message from his father, Oskar sets out to meet the 472 Blacks listed in the local telephone directory.
This plot is ripe old nonsense that gets sillier by the minute, and Daldry's handling of the story doesn't make it any easier to digest. The film is too much, in every way. It's garishly over-directed, frenetically edited – as if to reflect the anxious mindset of its protagonist – and constantly reaching for big, tearjerking moments that it hasn't put in the spadework to earn. So many of its cloying affectations immediately grate; from the gas mask Oskar wears on the subway and the tambourine he rattles to calm his nerve, to the mute and mugging performance from Max von Sydow as a WWII veteran who communicates through notes and 'yes/no' tattoos on the palms of his hands. It turns out that 'The Renter' is Oskar's grandfather, which you may regard as a spoiler, but surely no audience member will fail to discern this from the moment he makes his entrance, so heavily telegraphed and clumsily played is every single 'twist.
A fine cast struggle to breathe some life into this appalling material (Viola Davis is always moving; Jeffrey Wright's cameo is welcome but too late) but the film reeks of schmaltz and artifice in every frame, despite the reliably classy contributions from cinematographer Chris Menges and composer Alexandre Desplat. By the time the film has wrung out the false suspense of the final unanswered phone message and implemented an absurd plot development involving Bullock's character, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has long exceeded its welcome, and it left me wondering if any director could have wrangled this problematic book into something cinematically worthwhile. It needed a director with a real feel for New York, one with a greater sense of storytelling imagination, or one less prone to straining for prestige status, but instead it got Daldry, whose dead hand renders it almost insufferable. With films that use 9/11 as the focus or backdrop to their story, people are still inclined to ask the question "too soon?" However, that's not the issue with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – it's simply too fake, too exploitative, too bad.