Some stories are genuinely moving, others so shamelessly manipulative that they come off as crass. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry, falls somewhere in between.
Adapted from a polarizing novel, the film focuses on 11-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a socially awkward but remarkably intelligent boy, whose father (Tom Hanks) died in the World Trade Center attacks. Haunted by grief and guilt, and unable to make sense of this horrible tragedy even a year later, Oskar becomes obsessed with solving the mystery behind a key he believes his dad left for him in an envelope simply marked with the word ‘Black’.
Setting off on a search to find the lock that fits this key, Oskar creates an elaborate and methodical project to track down every person with the last name Black in New York City. Before you know it, he’s combing the streets, knocking on doors, and telling strangers his story, in the hope of finding some last message from his father. Even as his mother (Sandra Bullock) struggles to get through to Oskar, the kid finds an unlikely companion in a mysterious old man who doesn’t speak (Max von Sydow).
While there are a few genuinely poignant moments in this film – like one in which Oskar tells his mother he wishes it was her, and not his father, who was killed – for the most part Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close comes off as contrived and exploitative. The suggestion that this kid and his cute project becomes the catalyst of recovery for hundreds of grieving New Yorkers feels cheap, and only undermines the impact of that tragedy.
Tom Hanks, in what’s essentially an extended cameo, seems perfectly cast as the best dad in the world, and Sandra Bullock brings quiet dignity despite the cloying material here. But it’s the supporting cast that’s terrific – particularly Max von Sydow who’s superbly restrained and moving, and Viola Davis who conveys volumes through her eyes.
But the film rests squarely on the tiny shoulders of its young lead, and works only if you’re invested in the character of Oskar, and in the performance of Thomas Horn. Although impressive in portions, Horn’s shrill voice is grating after a point, and it doesn’t help that Daldry saddles the film with an incessant voiceover from the precocious kid.
I’m going with two out of five for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Watch it if you don’t mind being manipulated into shedding tears.