First things first: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is not the 9/11 movie you've been waiting for. It's not a reflection of some neatly demarcated passage of time that would allow a movie like it to exist. Such a movie doesn't exist in any precise, objective way--but if it did, it would surely take the form of something different from the mopey and sloven drama of "Extremely Loud," an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel buried in overweening pathos.
The main casualty of this misfire, directed by Stephen Daldry with the same grim, self-serious atmosphere he brought to "The Reader," is newcomer Thomas Horn. In an impressively energetic turn, he plays the garrulous, brilliant and possibly aspergic nine-year-old Oskar Schell, the son of an affable New York jeweler (Tom Hanks) who happens to attend a meeting in the World Trade Center at the moment Oskar repeatedly calls "the worst day," and never comes home.
Alienated from his grief-stricken mother (Sandra Bullock), Oskar launches on a cryptic mission across the city to find the lock for a key his father seems to have left in the family's closet. Oskar's mission builds off playful scavenger hunts his dad used to give the feisty youth as an outlet for his active mind. Faced with unspeakable tragedy, Oskar never stops searching for answers.
Oskar yammers on and on about "the worst day," keeping secret from his mother the final, morbid voicemails his father left on their machine. The kid's cathartic adventures around town generally involve a series of false leads and dramatic exchanges with some of the strangers he meets as he follows various clues. With his rapid-fire dialogue and cosmic perspective, Oskar has a lot more going on than the movie he inhabits, and Horn brings a ferocity to the performance that makes the kid watchable even when an ever-present and ultra-mournful score drowns him out.
The problem of overstated sentimentality, however, extends beyond the music cues and includes a number of other factors, including a typically pat Hanks role that routinely crops up in flashbacks to reminds us that Oskar's dad was a wonderful man and his death hit Oskar pretty hard. Then there's the issue of Max von Sydow, wasted in a wordless role as the mysterious tenant who shows up at Oskar's grandmother's apartment and briefly tags along with Oskar on his hunt for the missing lock. Von Sydow's face registers emotion with only the slightest movements, but there's nothing for him to react against except the trite, silly mission that forms the movie's central plot.
More annoying than offensive, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" routinely attempts to manipulate its audience in the hopes that tears will flow. Many viewers might just do that based on context alone. The mere sound of a man trapped in the World Trade Center and calling his family moments before his death elicits insta-sadness no matter how cheaply staged.
Daldry's fixation on creating a visceral reaction puts "Extremely Loud" in the same camp as Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," a visually superior accomplishment that revs its engine in each passing scene for the big cry of the finale. At least in that case, there's a wordless beauty, the magnificent landscape imagery of the World War II-era British countryside, to inject a trite scenario with raw power. "Extremely Loud" gets no such easy out. It uses 9/11 as an excuse.
In fact, it's possible that too much time has passed for a movie like this. If "Extremely Loud" came out in the weeks or months following 9/11, more audiences (and critics) might find an excuse to appreciate the way its soul-searching protagonist works through his grief. Ten years later, his struggle actually feels outrageously old-fashioned.
Criticwire grade: D+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? As the last movie discussed as Oscar bait hitting theaters this year, "Extremely Loud" has been absent from most critics polls, received mixed-to-negative reviews and got snubbed by the Golden Globes. It probably won't get very far in awards season. Opening in limited release on Sunday, it faces too much competition from the likes of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and two Steven Spielberg movies to perform especially well at the box office. However, it may gain some momentum when it goes wide in late January, when the field is less crowded.