By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a difficult movie to watch, not because it's centered on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but because it is so maudlin and manipulative. This movie wants to rip out your heart like nothing has since the twin towers collapsed. Yet the falseness of whimsy and coincidence in Stephen Daldry's film constantly conflicts with harsh reality.
It begins with the very first images, of legs tumbling upside-down in slow-motion. It's a jumper from a World Trade Center window, exchanging certain death for a faster one. This is how young Oskar Schell imagines his father's last moments alive, through the fractured perspective of functional autism.
Oskar is a bright boy, and his father Thomas was a devoted refiner of that trait, posing mysteries and staging scavenger hunts to solve them, like searching for a secret sixth borough of Manhattan. The riddle he left behind after "the worst day" is a key in an envelope labeled "black." Finding the lock it opens is a quest challenging Oskar's shyness and fear of the outside world.
Deducing "black" is someone's name, Oskar begins tracking down every Black in the phone book. Phobic about public transportation, Oskar does this on foot, carrying a tambourine, which makes him feel secure when it jingles. The character is a bundle of sad quirks, carried out by Thomas Horn in a debut performance alternately affecting and annoying with its calculations.
Daldry's assault on our tear ducts is compounded by casting two actors as Oskar's parents whom we hate to see suffering. Tom Hanks plays Thomas as an idyllic dad, and knowing his fate after showing all this love is automatically tragic. And who among us wants to see adorable Sandra Bullock as his widow, uncontrollably sobbing when she isn't barely holding it together? These are small roles despite above-the-title billing.
Oskar crosses paths with a variety of shell-shocked New Yorkers, mostly in montages set to Alexandre Desplat's ear-wrenching musical score tuned to despair. The film's midsection is gilded with a superb, wordless performance by Max von Sydow, an elderly recluse communicating with Oskar through scribbled notes and the words "yes" and "no" printed on his palms. Von Sydow is the most genuine part of this movie.
The odd thing is how Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close gets more emotionally satisfying as focus moves away from Sept. 11 grief to more personal crises: a rocky marriage, the loss of one son and guilt of another, a dedicated mother. You get the feeling that Thomas could have died alone in a car crash and the movie's later, best sequences wouldn't be hindered. At least the final images of Oskar conquering his park swing phobia wouldn't be burdened with healing symbolism.
It has been interesting to watch Warner Bros. scramble to distance Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from its subject, with ads declaring this is not a Sept. 11 movie. It most certainly is, and the core story of a special-needs child seeking resolution after losing a parent is diluted because of that. The terror of Sept. 11 feels like little more than a dramatic hook, an easy way to make audiences cry. Oskar and the event defining him deserve better.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.