Director Stephen Daldry has never met a Big Theme he didn't like: After 2002's The Hours, a lugubrious women's-problem picture touching on AIDS and assisted suicide, he went to Auschwitz with 2008's The Reader. Following two such high-toned literary adaptations with such hefty subject matter, Daldry's logical next stop is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which not only has serious lit pedigree, based as it is on the sophomore novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, but also two global-historical tragedies to play with.
Ten-year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) has lost his father (Tom Hanks), who was on the 105th floor of one of the twin towers on the morning of 9/11. Almost a year later, Oskar, increasingly estranged from his mother (Sandra Bullock), finds a key in an envelope labeled "Black" among his father's effects and, in an effort to keep open the dialogue with his scavenger-hunt designing, game-playing dad, concludes that this key was the prompt to a last riddle, which he sets out, at length, to solve. Oskar, a whiz-kid strategist, does this by systematically interviewing every "Black" in the New York City phone book and hopes for a clue as to what lock the key fits, a quest that takes him on a bridge-and-tunnel tour of greater New York, from Gowanus scrap yards to the Far Rockaways. He is joined for a leg of his mission by a mysterious, mute tenant staying in his grandmother's apartment (Max von Sydow), very likely the grandfather who abandoned Oskar's father, deadened by his experience in the Dresden firebombing.
Oskar is a child prodigy of sorts, full of pedantic facts ("Only humans can cry tears — did you know that?") and overwrought sentence constructions ("I don't want to infect a multitude of people at school — I could be a walking pathogen!"), all offered in a quick, clipped delivery. (Befitting the precocity of Oskar, first-time actor Horn is a Jeopardy! Kids' Week champion.) Extremely Loud is predicated on the idea that everyone Oskar encounters feels protective affection for the boy and is touched by his plight, though Horn's chafing performance recalls nothing so much as Bruce McCulloch's horrid "Gavin" character on The Kids in the Hall, perpetually pestering strangers with goonish questions. ("If my head was veal, which I know it is not, how much would it be worth?")
The standout performance, unsurprisingly, is from 82-year-old von Sydow who, communicating with brief notes on tearaway notebook pages and "Yes" and "No" tattoos on his palms, puts a profound amount of nuanced inflection behind every accompanying expression. Hanks, seen in flashbacks, is called to do little more than be imminently likable; Mr. Schell is the ultimate mensch, a doting husband who spends his last night with his son in a routine tickle fight. (Would his death be less tragic if he were seen displaying a single human failing?)
Much of Mr. Schell's free time was spent designing "missions" for Oskar — including a search for the legendary lost sixth borough of New York — crafted to help the boy confront his fears. Even before the towers fell, Oskar was a withdrawn, Asperger-y child; now he shakes a tambourine wherever he goes to ward off numerous anxieties. Mr. Schell invented games to bait Oskar out of his anxieties, while Extremely Loud plays its own writerly game of strategic withholding, baiting the audience along on the way to a therapeutic breakthrough for the surviving Schells. "Can I tell you something I never told anyone else?" asks Oskar in a conference with a stockbroker played by Jeffrey Wright, but by then, the movie is already nothing but serial confession.
Aside from the case of the key, gimmicks include six traumatic 9/11 answering machine messages from a trapped, dying Mr. Schell, strategically counted down for suspense; the unveiling of the grandfather's identity; and a rather absurd third-act 180 for Bullock's character, topped only by a swelling-soundtrack tour through Oskar's scrapbook. Such an abundance of "epiphanies," one after another, amount to a tactical assault on viewer sentiments. The deluge of tears is Mr. Daldry's idea of pathos, but to these eyes is Oscar-trolling 9/11 kitsch.