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Now and Then: In Two Foer Adaptations, Surprises and Disappointments Abound

Now and Then: In Two Foer Adaptations, Surprises and Disappointments Abound

I’ll admit it came as a shock, near the end of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” to find myself crying. As it turns out, movies can still surprise us, and I don’t just mean that they defy the expectations set by Rotten Tomatoes. I mean they can, in the midst of things, find what they’ve been missing.

Stephen Daldry, directing a script by Eric Roth from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, takes his usual surgeon’s scalpel to its tale of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy on a journey to reconnect with his father (Tom Hanks), who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Daldry’s style has a stillness, framing life as though seen through an un-streaked pane of glass. It’s a skill that works to gorgeous effect with the introspection of a film like “The Hours,” but feels too tame for Foer’s eccentric rustle of emotion. It’s all well and good to find the straight line in a story, but when that story is one about the sorrow of a shadow — Oskar’s father, the towers themselves — the wonder of discovery, of shedding light, runs adrift.

As a fan of the novel, an inventive and moving bolt in the blue, I worried over adapting it for the screen. The melding of fantasy and reality, the arresting image of the printed page: I wondered how the flashbacks would work, how Oskar — a tough protagonist to get along with anyway — could be made sympathetic when he lived outside my imagination. Such anxiety was well founded, for the film can’t seem to resolve its inner tensions, and comes off mostly charmless. Losing the novel’s long historical backdrop to streamline the drama, Daldry and Roth have made a child’s adventure for an adult audience, rather than an adventurous drama about the failures of the adults in a child’s world.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is all the more disappointing for the surprises it holds. As Oskar plays his father’s phone messages from that terrible morning for “The Renter” (the boy’s grandfather, played by Max von Sydow), the film shuttles between Oskar’s flashbacks and von Sydow’s trembling lip. In mere moments the film comes upon what it’s capable of, which is to compress time and thus make it doubly powerful; we see the regret and understand the memories on which it is based all at once. Almost unaccountably, it swept me up, with a montage of Oskar and his mother (Sandra Bullock) uncovering other people’s stories, or as Oskar describes to an unhappily married man (Jeffrey Wright) his choice not to pick up a ringing phone. On revealing this secret, they clasp hands, and just then everything else seemed small — even my disappointment.

Daldry could have picked up a few pointers from actor Liev Schreiber, who wrote and directed the adaptation of Foer’s first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated.”  It’s a forcefully eccentric book, with a mixture of endearing inventions and annoying tics, for which Schreiber’s visual wit is a felicitous match. There’s a wall of artifacts, dated and hanging in plastic bags; the Heritage Tours car, a blue Soviet-era Trabant; the subtitles even reflect the odd locutions of Alex, the narrator, a Ukrainian who seems to have learned English with Roget’s Thesaurus at his side.  

Alex and his grandfather play guide to our protagonist, Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood), as he searches for his family’s history in the rubble of the century’s most searing disaster. As it happens, “Everything Is Illuminated” also builds to a reckoning, but it does so with difficulty, the difficulty of making a more distant horror real. The way Schreiber uses his impeccable style to reach the moment of revelation is startling when set against Daldry’s more tepid approach. Rather, Schreiber marks a lone shack as important with an endless field of sunflowers and rows of white sheets strung from clothesline; he lifts the veil, so to speak, under cover of darkness.

Admittedly, the music is heavy-handed (Old Country ballads hammered through in nearly every sequence), and some of the jokes carried from the novel might have been better off left behind. But in moving easily between past and present, history and memory, “Everything Is Illuminated” succeeds in bringing to light depths and worries less easily spotted in the novel. As with all of the best adaptations, the film isn’t merely a photographic version of the novel but a companion to it, interesting for its own reasons. Foer is a novelist consumed by history, by the knowledge that the past is a far country. This is what he deserves, a well-traveled guide.

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