Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does for 9/11 what The Boy In the Striped Pajamas did for the Holocaust. It takes a transcendentally terrible event in human history, and polishes away any of the sharp edges. It continues to do this well past the point of necessity. It just keeps applying layer after layer of polish until all that's left is a gleaming, indistinct husk. By the time this film runs its course, it has rendered the worst terrorist attack in American history into the mere backdrop of a chintzy modern fairy tale. It treats the fall of the Twin Towers as little more than a catalyst for a young, impossibly precocious boy to experience the wonders of humanity and truly connect with his father; his father who died in 9/11, of course.
It's not that 9/11 is an untouchable subject. Any event in human history should, theoretically, be accessible to those who want to tell their own stories. However, like The Boy In the Striped Pajamas, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is so concerned with telling its own story that it all but forgets about the horrors bubbling underneath the surface. Say what you will about the uncomfortable proximity of United 93, or even the sort of drab, maudlin sensibilities of World Trade Center--those movies at least treated their subject matter with something that resembled a careful hand. Extremely Loud is like the last ten minutes of Remember Me, stretched across two seemingly endless hours, and with an autistic boy in place of Edward Cullen.
Or maybe he isn't autistic. The script by Eric Roth--adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer--can't ever quite commit to whether or not its central character's bundle of quirks is the result of a socially debilitating condition, or just the result of him being A Very Special Little Boy. The boy, Oskar (Thomas Horn), is a million character traits in search of a character. Horn is a good actor, delivering his bizarre dialogue with something that approaches believable. But again, the story can't resist turning Oskar into a museum of quirk. He can't just be a boy on the search for a bit of meaning. He has to also be incredibly intelligent, be fascinated by bugs and anything French, and have a list of phobias a mile long, not the least of which involves any form of public transportation. In order to tackle those fears, he has to be totally willing to walk all over New York City and its outer boroughs, regardless of the boundaries of time and decent parenting. He also has to have a tambourine with him at all times, because it calms him down.
This walking, breathing amalgamation of every magical boy in every magical fairy tale smooshed together lives in Manhattan with his happily married parents (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock) in the time leading up to, and immediately following the events of 9/11. Oskar and his father spent many a night working on various expeditions that his father had designed for him, most of which centered around a mythical "Sixth Borough," which his father had rather meanly told him floated away hundreds of years ago. In order to learn more about this borough, Oskar would do things like go to Central Park in the middle of the night with only his septuagenarian grandmother to watch over him. Never mind all the homeless crazies and prowling rapists that hang around the park at night. Apparently in this magical world of New York, where a tiny, energetic boy can walk from the Upper West Side to the Rockaways in a single afternoon, there are also no murderers or rapists. But I guess there are terrorists.
Through nonlinear explanation, we learn all about how Oskar learned of his father's untimely demise in the twin towers, and how he came to discover a hidden key inside an old vase in his father's closet. Because Oskar's brain is tuned to believe that everything is a hidden message of some kind, he believes he must find the lock that goes with this key. All he has is a name, "Black," so he proceeds to look up the addresses of every person with the name Black in the greater New York area. Every Saturday, he goes and visits a couple of these people to find out if they know anything about this key. He then crafts detailed files on each of them, and moves onto the next person.
If this sounds nauseatingly twee and obnoxiously kitschy, it's because it's both of those things, and then some. Having never read the original novel, I cannot say specifically how much of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's flamethrowing of your heart is inherent to the source material. Regardless, it is relentless. Every single moment of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is calculated in such a way as to drag the tears from your eye sockets. This movie doesn't just want to make you cry. It wants to make you cry the whole way through, and if you're running low on tears, it'll pour on the sappy, pseudo-poetic imagery of a sad boy being sad about his dead dad and 9/11 until you squeeze out a few more.
Not that director Stephen Daldry isn't adept at warming the heart through cinema. His previous works include the likes of Billy Elliott, a movie so overwhelmingly joyful and poignant that it's naturally become a Broadway musical. And yet with this material, and these characters, Daldry can't seem to resist going for the tearjerking with unchecked gusto. It's as if he's convinced he's making the most heartwarming film of all time, and thus feels the need to constantly sweep the camera across Oskar and his New York cityscapes while the score swells with breathless enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that breathless enthusiasm makes the whole thing seem completely ill-conceived. Daldry never turns New York into the fairy tale world he seems to want to transform it into, nor does he amply explain how this precious little boy is so easily able to navigate the pitfalls of metropolitan life all but unscathed. His only compensation is to slather the camera in more blooming sunlight and vaseline-soaked sweetness, which turns the movie from merely odd to utterly unbearable less than halfway through.
It's a shame, because there are very good actors here trying to do something, anything with this material. Again, Horn is a fine actor, and presumably he will find more work that doesn't require him to be the most annoying child ever put on screen. Hanks and Bullock make it clear early on that they're less interested in Oskar the child than they are Oscar the tiny gold statuette. Bullock is especially in full-on tragedy mode, tugging at the heartstrings of the audience at every possible turn. It's depressing, because Bullock's better than this junk. Hanks is too, though he at least has the benefit of dying before any of the really annoying stuff happens. Even Max Von Sydow, that sly, steely actor who has rarely given a bad performance in his life, seems lost when tasked with playing the mysterious stranger renting a room from Oskar's grandmother who is too traumatized from some previous horror to speak, and literally has the words "yes" and "no" tattooed on the palm of his hands. He offers more than the character seems to provide on the surface, but there's just nowhere for their relationship to go.
I guess if there's one question I would ultimately put to the makers of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it would be: why? Why make this movie? What does telling the story of a character so outlandishly unidentifiable in a scenario so outlandishly implausible do to better our understanding of anything? All this story does is take the horror of 9/11 and drown it in an ocean of crocodile tears. You won't learn anything by watching Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, nor will you feel much either. Except, perhaps, for the burning desire to leave the theater as quickly as possible. I certainly felt that.