It becomes clearer as the years pass that the 9/11 tearjerker is a virtually—perhaps absolutely—impossible genre, whatever the level of talent and sincerity applied to it. Whether it’s a serious attempt to come to terms with the tragedy like “World Trade Center” or a puerile rip-off like “Remember Me,” the result has never been worthy of the subject.
The same can be said of this film by Stephen Daldry, adapted by Eric Roth from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. In terms of cast and crew, it certainly has a redoubtable pedigree, and it’s been made with care and obvious dedication. Still, the man responsible for turning the potentially maudlin material of “Billy Elliot” into a movie of exceptional charm and emotional resonance hasn’t worked similar magic here. Though well-intentioned, the finished product might better be titled “Extremely Mawkish and Incredibly Manipulative.”
Like “Elliot,” the narrative focuses on a young boy, but in this case Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is an intelligent but socially maladjusted lad who—as he informs us in one bit of dialogue, might be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. His father Thomas (Tom Hanks) is a jeweler by trade but a knowledgeable fellow and supremely involved dad who encourages his son to develop his faculties to the fullest by confronting him with elaborate puzzles to solve, like the whereabouts of a purported lost borough of New York City. And his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) is a concerned, loving woman supportive of both her men. Oskar is also close to his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), who lives directly across the alley from the Schell apartment and converses with him via walkie-talkie.
Tragedy strikes when Thomas is at a meeting in the Towers when the planes hit, and Oskar, sent home from school, hears his father’s desperate voice messages on the answering machine. The loss is traumatic, but the boy responds in a fashion typical for him, becoming obsessed with discovering the lock that will be opened by a key he finds in a vase on the top shelf of the late man’s closet. Since it was in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it, he assumes that through it his father is directing him to someone with that name, and so he begins systematically tracking down every Black in the NYC phonebook, believing that when he finds the right one, he’ll receive Thomas’ last message to him.
The New Yorkers whom he approaches in brief episodes prove for the most part an extremely—indeed, implausibly—receptive lot, most notably the first, Abby (Viola Davis), a woman suffering a domestic crisis of her own. And while Oskar’s early peregrinations around the city are solitary affairs—he keeps his mother in the dark about his odyssey, relying only on a trusty tambourine to soothe his fears—he’s eventually accompanied on his rounds by a mysterious stranger (Max von Sydow) his grandmother has taken in—a disheveled old man who refuses to speak, communicating solely through written notes. In time the boy’s search takes him to Abby’s estranged husband William (Jeffrey Black), who reveals the secret of the key. But Thomas’ final message to his son is actually found elsewhere.
As with Daldry’s “The Hours,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”—while beautifully made in cinematic terms (with Chris Menges’ lustrous cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s characteristically canny score standout elements)—never manages to escape its literary roots. Oskar, though played with clear-eyed focus by newcomer Horn, seems in his combination of precociousness and eccentricity more a product of the printed page than real life (his extended narration further accentuates that). And the figure of the renter, whom von Sydow endows with a bedraggled charm reminiscent of sentimental silent dramedy, is the sort of device a pretentious writer might easily come up with—especially given the unsurprising last-act revelation of his identity. (A brief allusion to the character’s experience of the firebombing of Dresden comes across as a very strained—some would say tasteless—comparison to the 9/11 event.) Even Thomas, whom Hanks plays with an exuberant intensity that feels manic at times, doesn’t seem authentic—though in his case one might argue that he’s being viewed through the lens of his son’s memory.
The other cast members contribute similarly affected turns. As staged by Daldry, Wright’s big scene is so somber and restrained as to be funereal, and not in a good way. John Goodman’s virtual cameo as a doorman is no more than an amusing throwaway. The actors and actresses who play the panoply of Blacks are straightjacketed by the narrative calculation, which includes a concluding twist that makes the characters’ reactions to Oskar’s search more understandable but no more credible. Even Davis seems hamstrung by a part that’s heavy on weepy melodrama. Only Bullock seems genuine, coming into her own in the last act, especially when that twist takes over.
Plumbing the emotional depths of the 9/11 tragedy is a tricky business that only “United 93” has managed thus far to navigate successfully on screen. Daldry’s film, while expertly crafted, ultimately confuses profundity with bathos, narrative elegance with literary archness and emotional power with sentimental handwringing.