People aren't like numbers. They're more like letters... and those letters want to become stories... and Dad said that stories need to be shared. -- Oskar Schell
At the center of this sentimental tale is the borderline autistic (tests were inconclusive, he tells his apartment's security guard) Oskar Schell: a prodigious, but isolated, young boy. He and his mother--a grieving Sandra Bullock--are reeling from the recent death of his father, Thomas Schell, who was a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks comfortably ensconced in his Mr. Nice Guy routine, is shown in flashback to be the one person who could draw Oskar out of his shell, challenging his outsized intellect and his non-existent social skills by sending him to complete various puzzles throughout the city. These puzzles would force him to interact with a variety of people he wouldn't dare approach otherwise. From these memories and from the pronounced difference created by his passing, it's clear that Thomas was the foundation that this family stood upon.
Flash-forward to a year later and Oskar has retreated within himself once again, listening over and over to the six final voice-mail messages his father left from the WTC before his death--messages he withheld from his mother all this time. Oskar is frightened that his connection with his father will fade with time and angry at his mom for not being able to explain why terrorists wanted to kill his dad, once telling her that he wishes she had died instead of his father (to which she softly replies "So do I"). Despite her many attempts to reach out to her only surviving family, he spurns her repeatedly, not seeing how deeply his words wound her. One day, while looking through his father's things, he finds a key sealed in an envelope with only "Black" written on it. Convinced that this might be the literal key to a secret of his dad's or perhaps one final mission from him, he contrives to search New York for all the hundreds of "Blacks" in the phonebook, hoping to find the elusive lock that the key fits.
Eventually, Oskar meets a mute, ancient man, known to him only as The Renter--played by acting legend Max von Sydow--who moved in with his grandmother soon after his father's death. The Renter begins to accompany Oskar on his journey and, despite only being able to communicate through written notes, makes for a well-matched, gregarious companion. As the search for the key plods on, and Schell becomes simultaneously more and more obsessed with the search and less and less confident in his eventual success, The Renter tries to show him that perhaps the search itself is more important than the answer to this particular riddle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this movie's largest flaw is its approach to the main character Oskar, played by the precocious Thomas Horn. No disrespect to Horn, most famously a Jeopardy! Kids champion before this film, who seems like a nice enough kid and is clearly trying hard here. But he was obviously chosen for how closely he resembles Oskar in real life, moreso than for any great acting talent and was overmatched at times by this challenging role. Schell is not an innately likeable character. He withholds his father's last words from his mother, blames her for events far out of her control and always generally seems more interested in pursuing his own goals than listening to anyone else's problems and while Horn is far from terrible (he performs well in a majority of his scenes with Sandra Bullock and von Sydow, and handles his sententious lines with surprising daring for one so young), we never really see events from his perspective. To an audience filled largely with people without autism, his irresponsible actions seem more like those of a cold-hearted, inconsiderate brat rather than those of a troubled, emotionally distant child. His character is annoying, as he should be, but never as sympathetic as he needs to be.
This is not so much Horn's fault as it is the director's--Stephen Daldry. Daldry's meticulous character studies filmed with crisp, if uninspired, professionalism have have all been huge hits with the Academy (this is his first movie to receive fewer than three Oscar nominations). And while it's easy to see why he was drawn to this project (his previous two films have dealt with the light-hearted issues of AIDS and homosexuality, and the Holocaust) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is quite the unconventional story for such a stolidly conventional filmmaker, and while Daldry never totally puts a foot wrong tonally (this film often just barely avoids veering into unbearably saccharine moments), one wonders what might have been possible in the hands of a director blessed with greater vision. Most scenes are presented straight-forwardly, though a couple of sequences (when Horn first steps outside of the apartment and must confront his various phobias, and when he first tells his story to the renter) approach embracing the flair this story desperately needed. Daldry is also most guilty for the films most absurdly dramatic moments, the repeated slow motion shot of a breaking vase the most egregious offender. Also culpable here is the screen-writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) who specializes in stories where interesting things happen to uninteresting people.
However, it's thanks to Daldry's other strengths that this movie remains a pleasurable experience. The ensemble, outside of Horn, is uniformly exceptional. Tom Hanks as the affable and approachable father will keep you grinning for much of his screentime. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright both excel in their brief roles, each conveying their own stories with pregnant silence, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps around Schell's ignorance. Max von Sydow as the mute renter proves why he's been working at the top of this industry for nearly seven decades with this effortlessly expressive performance. Without ever needing to speak, it's clear at each moment what he's thinking and yet von Sydow retains the necessary mystery of his performance... he keeps you guessing at his motives for aiding this difficult child.
The indisputable champion of the supporting cast is the haunted Sandra Bullock, a woman nearly destroyed by her loss. She captures the desperation, sadness and listlessness of someone whose life was ripped away from her. Considering how easy it is to lose yourself over-the-top with such an emotional performance, Bullock performs with a restraint I did not realize her to be capable of, while also nailing every necessarily histrionic moment. Ultimately though, these fascinating performances all emphasize the movie's central flaw... why focus on Oskar when there are all these far more interesting stories to be told--stories that we are only given oblique access to?
In the end, this movie is far more entertaining to watch than to think about. Several scenes do manage to carry an individual emotional impact, due largely to the talented, veteran cast of actors assembled. Unfortunately, as a film, it simply doesn't hold up well under close scrutiny due to the ambition, or lack thereof, of the people involved. Perhaps I'm less inclined to give this film lee-way because of the necessary weight it adopts by using the 9/11 tragedy as its launching pad (I seriously doubt it's a coincidence this movie came out the year of the 10-year anniversary) and while this movie isn't nearly as embarrassing as 2010's Remember Me, it never wholly overcomes the inconsistencies in its lead performance or the standard, by-the-numbers approach of its director and crew. Maybe I'm being wrong-headed about this, but if a movie must exploit a national tragedy in pursuit of box office and awards glory, is it too much to ask that it be great?