The only thing about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that makes it seem as though it belongs anywhere near the current batch of Oscar contenders is that its pint-sized protagonist, the extremely loquacious and incredibly cloying Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), is a kind of kindred spirit to awards-season heroes Lisbeth Salander and Hugo Cabret (he’s both an ultra-efficient, number-crunching loner with a photographic memory and the holder of a magical golden key he believes will help him unlock the secrets of his late father). By all other accounts, this needlessly self-important and hugely artificial post-9/11 weepie feels laughably out of place, and could just as well have been brushed under the rug with, say, the throwaways released in late winter and early spring. Like 25th Hour as directed by the Care Bears, the New York-set film attempts to use the ordeal of one to address the pain and interconnectedness of all in the wake of what Oskar calls “the worst day,” yet it’s presented in a cutesy, sterile, pristine package befitting the shelves at FAO Schwartz. Quite literally from first shot to last, it’s an elaborately overworked act of shameless tear-wringing, its manipulation increasing by the reel and emanating out of Oskar from his dreamy baby blues to his Leave It to Beaver wardrobe. If this insufferably drawn, answer-seeking symbol of a kid were truly representative of post-9/11 New Yorkers (or, wider still, Americans), one surely wouldn’t need to look overseas to find a source of terror.
Horn, in fact, gives a fine, accomplished child performance, and intermittently, the sheer anger and enthusiasm he projects helps to support the drastic uniqueness of Oskar, whose precocious flights of fancy lose their joy when his father and best pal, a jeweler named Thomas (Tom Hanks), perishes in one of the World Trade Center towers. The problem is that Oskar, even more than an emitter of icky sentiment, is a vessel for the material’s endless bounty of forced, hipper-than-thou idiosyncrasies, his youth and undefined mental struggles positioned as justification for the movie’s mumblecore-ish leanings. There are some perfectly swallowable character quirks, like Oskar’s insistence on wearing his father’s oversized shoes and carrying a tambourine to aurally calm his nerves, but there’s no limit to the grating randomness of his “individuality,” and his contrived catalogue of tics, traits, and isms hyperactively work against both his likability and the film’s credibility (rather than nailing the pivotal, mind-scouring catharsis for which it aims, a frenetically edited, proud-of-itself memory montage in the second act, which sees Oskar blurt out scads of strange encounters and skeevy pet peeves, feels like a punishing storm of phoniness).
Amid his citywide quest to find the lock that matches the key he found in his father’s closet, a journey that makes real his and his father’s playtime “reconnaissance” missions and forces him to overcome phobias, Oskar meets an old man, known only as “The Renter” (Max von Sydow), who stays in Oskar’s grandmother’s neighboring building and hasn’t uttered a peep in decades. The pair’s relationship, which kicks off after the Renter agrees to help Oskar with his search, at least helps to pull the proceedings down to a somewhat grounded level, with the characters standing at opposite extremes of post-traumatic stress, and their encounters actually seeming like those between two human beings. But even this development becomes a hollow, pandering gimmick, as the Renter is a walking sight gag armed with “Yes” and “No” palm tattoos and an arsenal of pithy notes a la Paul Dano’s angsty mute in Little Miss Sunshine. Gracing the screen at the close of a year that saw a celebrated resurrection of silent acting, von Sydow does some nice emoting in his wordless performance, but not even he can make tolerable a climactic scene in which Oskar forces the Renter to listen to Thomas’s final voicemails, and in the process all but shoves boxes of Kleenex into viewers’ laps. Every major revelation in this film is deliberately offered like emotional dynamite, with a wide-eyed, here-it-comes warning from Oskar serving as the lit fuse.
Working from yet another Eric Roth script that recalls Forrest Gump (the kooky Oskar systematically affects, and is affected by, an array of folks who may or may not hold the lock to his key), Stephen Daldry pulls out any and all stops that may have curbed the melodrama in a movie like The Reader, abandoning every lick of restraint in his efforts to play the audience like a syrup-greased harp. Apart from perhaps two scenes, one involving a poignant phone call and the other a provocative tirade about what became of the victims who left no trace, his latest proves to be little more than a predestined jaunt toward a hug-and-kisses finale, whose approach to introducing a bond between Oskar and his underwritten mother (Sandra Bullock, fine but barely present) subsequently devalues the bonds that supposedly strengthened Oskar’s fear-facing coming of age. What’s more, it robs you of any chance of inferring themes and plot points on your own, checking off its tidy to-do list with the same Rain-Man thoroughness that dominates Oskar’s behavior. Conceptually, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close shows great promise, and there’s a film out there, somewhere, with a meritorious child’s-eye perspective on 9/11. This, however, is most certainly not it. This film buries its soul beneath its own pretentious rubble, and the youthful, labyrinthine mind in which it places viewers feels less like an offbeat vehicle for healing than it does a kaleidoscopic prison.