Stephen Daldry has something to brag about. Every one of the British-born director’s features to date — “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader” — has received an Academy Award nomination as best picture. But all good things must come to an end, and as of Tuesday (when the next batch of Oscar contenders is announced) Daldry’s streak will almost certainly be broken: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel that some people adored and many people abhorred, is unlikely to wow the voters.
(Author's note: Amazingly, it did score a best picture nomination after all — even though the review site Rotten Tomatoes noted it is the worst-reviewed movie in the last 10 years to be chosen as a contender in that category. Go figure.)
Wearing its noble intentions and strained symbolism like a suit of armor, the movie presents a sorrowful, sentimental and often downright strange portrait of post-9/11 New York, as seen through the eyes of a precocious, possibly autistic 11-year-old — Get it? Just like 9/11! — named Oskar (Thomas Horn).
There’s something amiss about “Extremely” right off the bat. For instance, the Schell family is supposedly Jewish, but neither Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock look like they’ve spent much time in a synagogue. There’s nothing wrong with their performances (both have some effective moments), but the casting is curious, to say the least.
It’s giving away very little to say that Thomas (Hanks), a jeweler, perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and his wife, Linda (Bullock), is somewhat shell-shocked, unwillingly keeping Oskar at a distance while she tries to heal herself. In the meantime, Oskar masochistically relives the events of “the worst day,” as he calls it, by replaying the anguished messages his father left on the answering machine.
“Extremely” is far less interested in the politics behind the attacks than it is in trying to find some sort of magical, whimsical wisdom beneath the rubble. For some viewers, that’s called “hopefulness”; for others, it’s likely to be borderline-offensive, especially since Foer’s plot makes a half-hearted, ill-advised attempt to draw parallels between 9/11 and the Holocaust.
Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) has rented out a room to a mute survivor (Max von Sydow) of the Nazis’ crusade, and he and Oskar become companions, trotting through the city in search of the lock that matches the mysterious key Oskar found while rummaging around in his dad’s closet. The quest sends Oskar through each of New York’s boroughs, where he meets dozens of colorful types: immigrants, stressed-out moms, sweet old ladies, businessmen, jolly drag queens and a sympathetic, soon-to-be-divorced woman (Viola Davis), who helps him put the puzzle together.
Why does Linda allow her brilliant but severely unsettled child (who frequently needs to shake a tambourine to calm his nerves) to jaunt around Manhattan, either by himself or accompanied by a frail senior citizen? There is an explanation, although, like much of the story, it is exceedingly hard to swallow.
There’s no denying that Daldry, cinematographer Chris Menges, editor Claire Simpson and an outstanding audio department have assembled a movie that looks and sounds marvelous. When Oskar retreats inside himself, the sights, noises and textures of the world around him seem to turn into a throbbing, colorful cocoon. Horn, a neophyte actor who has to carry the entire movie on his slender shoulders, is exceptionally fine, conveying Oskar’s sense of alienation without making him obnoxious or intolerably cute. When he and Linda finally face off, Bullock and Horn make the fight almost frighteningly real. As for von Sydow, he invests his sketchy character with some real forcefulness and fire.
In the end, however, “Extremely” is a well-polished would-be tearjerker with a hollow center, an assembly of capable actors and skilled filmmakers weighed down by a synthetic, simplistic story. There may well be some uplifting tales to be told about the aftermath of 9/11, but this awkward urban fairy tale isn’t one of them.