When it comes to film-making, there are a few rules that should never be broken. Using sentimentality as a crutch to support an otherwise unremarkable film should be one of these unbreakable laws. Unfortunately, it appears director Stephen Daldry was feeling defiant while making Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
The film, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling 2005 novel of the same name, tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell (played by brand-newcomer Thomas Horn). His father (Tom Hanks) was on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and a devastated Oskar hasn’t been able to move past the loss. Hateful and anti-social, he tortures himself mentally, emotionally, and physically.
When he finds a key in his father’s closet, Oskar becomes determined to find its matching lock. Along with it, he hopes, he’ll find a way to finally be at peace. Because the key was in an envelope labeled “Black,” Oskar assumes this is the last name of its previous owner, and he takes off to visit all the Blacks in all five boroughs of New York—all 400-plus of them. Along the way, he meets the elderly mute man living in his grandmother’s apartment—“the renter,” everyone calls him—and begins to take him along.
In his journeys, we see Oskar knock on lots of doors and paste photos of new acquaintances in a scrapbook. Toward the end of the film, we even hear him acknowledge that he has heard many affecting life stories and realized how many others have suffered loss. In spite of this, we never see much in the way of change or growth. Oskar is made out to be bright and sensitive. He takes everything in and understands the complexities of human emotion better than most elementary-school students, yet he seems to flit from strange door to strange door, learning little except the limits of his own patience.
There were plenty of sniffles coming from all corners of the theater, but this stemmed as much from the movie being about sad things—the tragedy of September 11th, a fatherless child, a friendship between a lonely little boy and a lonely old man, a crying Sandra Bullock (who plays Oskar’s mother)—as from any intrinsic storytelling merit.
The actors do the best they can with the static screenplay. “The renter,” played by Max von Sydow, brings some much-needed lightness and realism to the plot, even in his silence. Faced with the daunting task of carrying the movie, Horn does just fine. His performance is far from flawless—although he’ll likely grow out of the habit of over-acting—but is nonetheless admirable, considering his only previous time on camera was during a Jeopardy! Kids Week stint two years ago.
The film will be even more disappointing for anyone who read Foer’s novel. In the book, Oskar is endearingly quirky, with a distinctive and well-developed (albeit off-kilter) worldview. The film, however, leaves out crucial character development and set-up, and the main character simply seems strange, even a bit annoying in his idiosyncrasies. Much of the plot was also left out, and the multi-generational tale of love, family, and tragedy is boiled down to the story of an overwhelmingly sad boy with an all-consuming desire to find a lock for a key. Ultimately, that makes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close little more than extremely disappointing.
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: Eric Roth (screenplay) & Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock & Max von Sydow
Release Date: Jan. 20, 2012