To say that Stephen Daldry’s latest film “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” packs a monumental emotional punch would be to put it lightly. Walking that razor-sharp line between tragedy and quirky coming-of-age story, dealing with the fallout of the Sept. 11 attacks and the trauma of losing his father, 9-year-old Oskar Schell embarks on “Reconnaissance Mission No. 6.”
Precocious to the extreme, Oskar (Thomas Horn) is grappling with a return to “normal” life one year after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed his father. Left alone with his grief-stricken mother (Sandra Bullock), Oskar flashes back repeatedly to memories of his father, his hero (Tom Hanks). Raised to be a thinker, the wheels in Oskar’s head immediately begin turning when he finds a mysterious key marked “Black” in a blue vase in his father’s closet. He decides that if he can ring the doorbell of every person with the last name “Black” in New York, he will be able to solve this last mission of his father’s.
What ensues are a series of heartwarming encounters with a number of Blacks throughout the city. Along the way, Oskar picks up a partner in crime, his estranged grandfather (Max von Sydow), referred to simply as The Renter, who has been living in Oskar’s German grandmother’s apartment for the past year. Von Sydow’s performance is well worth his Oscar nomination, conveying artfully the character of a man who has been so traumatized that he has mysteriously lost his ability to speak. He converses instead via notepad or with the aids of the words “yes” and “no,” which he has tattooed to the palms of his hands.
Daldry does not allow his viewer to forget the heavy subject material for long, though. Indeed, flashbacks to Sept. 11 are interspersed throughout, and the worst is the secret Oskar’s been keeping from everyone, the six messages on the answering machine left by Oskar’s father as the towers went down. Oskar keeps it from his audience until the last possible second, and with good reason: it’s just as awful as you dreaded it would be.
To a point, Daldry’s film maintains the postmodern integrity of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel of the same title. But something of the book does not translate to the screen. We lose a lot of Oskar’s narration, which is a shame, but more importantly, we lose some of the gravity of the situation. Though nowhere near as bad as the vomit-inducing “Remember Me,” the romance which killed off Robert Pattinson with a cheap Sept. 11 twist at the end, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” seems, at times, more intent on making us cry than telling a valid story. We remember Sept. 11 painfully, a fact which Daldry exploits at every turn, but Oskar’s story, while touching, does not do justice to Safran Foer’s original or the real-life tragedy which sets the plot in motion. With a hopeful, almost sickly-sweet Hollywood ending, the film diverges completely from the book, granting Oskar a sort of closure which is neither realistic nor appropriate.