Oskar Schell, the protagonist of “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close,” isn’t like other boys. Sure, he likes laughing and junk food and having a good time like the other kids. But this overly precocious ten year old is more of an Encyclopedia Brown in training. With the guidance of his father, he pieces together the mysteries of history, breaking down everyday life into a puzzle. The unspoken tragedy of this is that Oskar doesn’t have a life. What makes up his existence is the notion of an interconnected web attaching his life experiences as if they all influenced another, domino-style. He’s a ten year old boy who doesn’t appear to have many friends, aside from his overactive father.
With his slouched shoulders and thick glasses, there’s reason to believe Oskar’s pun-loving father was also a socially-maladjusted dork as a kid. Oskar shares a unique kinship with his pop, who seems thrilled to be raising a son in his own image. While Oskar’s father no doubt lived a fulfilling, incident-free life, Oskar makes mention of how he may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a subtle explanation for his intellectual curiosity previous generations would not have utilized. As such, Oskar has more than enough reason to be more self-conscious than his agreeable dad.
Oskar, who lives in a well-to-do apartment in New York City at the turn of the century, has no real adventures to draw upon. As a result, he’s bound to be powerless when a cataclysmic event occurs. Enter 9/11. On that fateful day, Oskar listens intently to the incoming phone messages, his father sounding firm but worried, wishing his love upon his family. Oskar is too paralyzed to respond, and he soon learns that the towers have come down.
The boy’s reaction is instantaneous. He was more than a father, he was a compass. There’s nothing that can compare with losing a parent at a young age. Like those in the buildings on September 11th, it feels like the end of the world. Oskar retreats into his notebooks and sketchpads, but he soon realizes it was only his father who could create mysteries out of thin air, who could simplify the complicated. It’s a chance encounter with his father’s abandoned goods, specifically a vase, that starts Oskar on his journey.
It’s this vase which sets off a chain reaction of reasoning and theorizing on Oskar’s part. To anyone who remembers these days, this resonates. The pieces didn’t fit, we argued in newspapers, on television, on subways and at libraries. Why did this happen? Why did this happen to us? None of us were fully equipped for the answers. “Extremely Loud” uses its ten year old protagonists as a way in to coming to terms with this horrific day. Emphasis on “uses.”
The boy is played by Thomas Horn, a who gives a manic but soft performance as a boy who won’t take no for an answer. What’s interesting about movies that supposedly depict children accurately is that they never seem to honor the spirit of an unhappy child, that being pushy, inconsiderate, selfish and stubborn. Horn’s Oskar is all that and more, a talkative sprite who will forever have a chip on his shoulder. Oskar won’t take no for an answer, and his book smarts yield a wealth of knowledge. Given that director Stephen Daldry tries to create a believable, realistic world surrounding him, Oskar is insufferable.
Oskar’s belief is that his father has had the foresight to leave behind a series of clues to reveal… something. Oskar isn’t sure what answers he should be pursuing, but he’s a bloodhound on the hunt, and the disinterest of what amounts to hundreds of New Yorkers does little to deter him. Among the adults he encounters is a fractured couple played by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. So excellent the two of them are in their brief scenes, you sigh as just how superfluous they are to this child’s natural recklessness.
“Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” is paced like a funeral, which sounds like an insult, but its actually a testament to the tastefulness of Mr. Daldry, whose last film, the Oscar-nominated “The Reader,” featured a chesty, pedophilic, illiterate Nazi. While the Twin Towers are seen in glimpses, Daldry knows the difference between “explicit” and “graphic.” He also showcases the trauma of reaching a dead end in your grief – ‘Extremely Loud’ isn’t the best film this year to focus on grief and survivor’s guilt (that would be “Margaret”) but each dead end Oskar reaches is loaded with the weight of unanswered questions, of unfulfilled expectations, and the crushing loneliness of being wrong.
Unfortunately, to recount the steps of this journey is to over-emphasize Daldry’s artificial structure, which leads one to believe there’s story momentum when Oskar’s adventures could be re-edited any other way. As he finds himself on various doorsteps, meeting people both kind and ornery in relation to the sequences of numbers and addresses he’s learned from his father’s vase, there’s the sense that it could go on forever. Oskar could find himself on the eight hundredth doorstep, with only a slightly improved knowledge of the human condition, and no answers regarding his father, that fateful day, or the meaning of the vase’s contents.
Because he is a child, however, his imagination immediately reaches for the possibility that his Dad has left a trail of bread crumbs to lead back to him. Given that he’s played by All-American Tom Hanks, this supernatural twist remains a possibility, as it would be the only conventional way to satisfy Oskar. Daldry resists the suggestion of any idea even metaphorically similar to that, instead forcing us to listen in as his harried mother (Sandra Bullock, actually never better) curls up underneath blankets and allows her son to shout epithets and insults towards her.
It’s these ugly moments that seem almost invalidated by the film’s suggestion that these wounds will heal. It feels less like faith in the human spirit and more like a concession to a three act structure. Bullock is so good in her brief scenes with her son, most of which are tinged with negativity, that you get the feeling they will love each other stronger than ever after these events, but also that the resentment will run deep. A similar realization strikes the audience regarding the character played by Max Von Sydow, a mute neighbor living next door with a not-so-surprising secret who implausibly learns a lesson from this overeager boy. The idea of a kindly elderly man who speaks in note cards and who must learn a lesson about fearlessness comes across as more of a gimmick than anything else, thanks to Daldry’s lumpy comic storytelling in these moments. Jim Carrey and Zack Galifianakis don’t exactly have this guy on speed dial.
“Extremely Loud” is effective in short spurts, Alexander Desplat‘s restrained and nuanced score in particular does an effective job in preventing the film from becoming too easily maudlin, though there’s a lot to wade through to get there. Most of the material can be excised, as several scenes don’t impact the main mystery, nor do they add to the underlying emotion of the piece. And while Daldry flirts with darkness, the end result is bloodless, drained of all insight beyond the boy’s own coming-to-terms. Though the grace notes are plenty, and, in a late scene with Wright’s character, a sympathetic suit who registers humanity through see-through doors, the cumulative emotional impact is overwhelming. The human tragedy is that we can’t solve each others’ puzzles. [B-]