Some look at the story elements in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and see rich dramatic possibilities: the 9/11 attacks; a grieving mother and son; a mysterious, mute neighbor; a quest to find the lock that fits a key. Others see a recipe for emotionally manipulative preciousness. You know which one you are.
It's probably fair to say that film critics as a rule fall into the latter category. The devices that turn average viewers into bawling puddles of gelatin can leave us with arms folded and eyes rolled. So it was with a degree of befuddlement that I found Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close working, on a level that gave its sentimentality an unexpected edge.
The adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel casts Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell, a boy whose father (Tom Hanks) dies in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving him with his mother (Sandra Bullock). One year later, Oskar discovers a key hidden in a vase, bearing only the enigmatic label "BLACK." Oscar begins a quest through the New York City phone book to visit everyone with the last name "Black" in an attempt to find out if the key can offer one last message from his father.
Oskar is one big collection of quirks. He's phobic about public transportation and bangs a tambourine as an aural security blanket. But Horn's performance fights off the potential for maudlin overkill, even as it butts up against plenty of conventional dramatic moments.
What of the aforementioned neighbor, who communicates with Oskar through scribbled notes and the words "YES" and "NO" written on his palms? It's another red flag, so it's fortunate that director Stephen Daldry cast someone as terrific as Max von Sydow in the role. Virtually every one of the film's best moments involves Oskar and "the renter," each wrestling with guilt.
Throughout Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, filmmaking decisions that might have accentuated Foer's tendency toward overbearing oddness instead, improbably, keep the film level. Hanks' performance, which paints Oskar's father as parental perfection personified, works perfectly in the context of a son's idealized flashbacks. The moments when Daldry uses the specifics of 9/11, especially visually, are restrained and respectful. A late revelation regarding the father's final moments feels genuinely heartbreaking.
The narrative ultimately loses momentum, and the big emotional moments in the third act don't quite pack the intended punch. Yet Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close generally finds a rhythm and a tone that are uncommon in a film whose subject matter screams Oscar-bait. It's a tearjerker that somehow didn't leave me feeling like I'd been jerked around.