Because Tom Hanks is both Hollywood's last Everyman and its saint in chief, it takes a bona fide atrocity to kill him: AIDS, the Nazis, Jude Law. So maybe we're overdue for a movie that sends him to perish offscreen in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hanks, after all, was an anchor of the Tribute to Heroes telethon that aired a little less than three weeks after the terrorist attacks, the first actor to speak on camera that night. He helped us grieve. Why shouldn't his presence be a signal that big-screen art can now officially emerge from the ashes?
So asks Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Warner Bros.' big-budget, awards-baiting adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's grotesquely precious novel. The answer: No reason at all, except that this isn't art. It's two hours of gorgeously wrought grief porn, from the director of The Reader and The Hours. Could someone maybe put on a telethon to prevent Stephen Daldry from continuing to make movies?
His problem is one not of talent but of taste: The director has none. But Daldry's movies are hardware magnets — Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet picked up Oscars on his watch — and that alone would keep a filmmaker of lesser skill on a studio payroll.
As in The Hours and The Reader, the actresses in this film carry the emotional burden. But Daldry's fascination isn't so much with strong, conflicted women as it is with what happens when a strong, conflicted woman must cope with a really annoying boy. Julianne Moore had the needy boy who would grow up to be haunted Ed Harris. Kate Winslet had (and had and had and had) the needy boy who would grow up to be haunted Ralph Fiennes. Here, Sandra Bullock (and, in a couple of scenes each, Viola Davis and Zoe Caldwell) is saddled with first-time actor Thomas Horn.
Horn, plucked from Jeopardy for his movie debut, has the unhappy task of playing Oskar Schell, Foer's verbose 11-year-old protagonist and the orphan of St. Tom. His portrayal is effective, intense and true to the book — which is to say, he makes Oskar insufferable. The kid isn't just needy but special needy. Oskar announces at one point that he was tested to find his place on the autism spectrum, but the results were inconclusive. There is a clinical term for Oskar's condition, though: HFLF. He's a high-functioning little fucker.
If that sounds harsh, well, you haven't endured scene after scene of Oskar forcing a frail old man (a silent, commanding Max von Sydow) on a geocaching death march across New York's five boroughs with blood-curdling outbursts and a cruel tambourine. You haven't watched Oskar barge in on Davis — while she's watching Jeffrey Wright leave her — and make her cry by talking about his dead dad. And you haven't seen Oskar track down Wright and get him to open up about his own dead dad. At no time do any of these poor, otherwise sensible adults (or various others played, in shorter scenes, by less well-known actors) think to tape Oskar's mouth shut, return him to Bullock, and start lobbying the government to lace school lunches with Adderall.
As each performer takes his or her turn patiently listening to Horn squawk his impossible lines and then giving him a short acting lesson, Daldry turns the emotional screws. Daldry's movies also are showpieces for handsome technique, and cinematographer Chris Menges and editor Claire Simpson paint and cut these scenes with aching care, ensuring that no one will miss the capital-I importance of each utterance and every teary gaze.
Eric Roth's adaptation (who else but Forrest Gump's screenwriter?) irons out Foer's tics and streamlines the plot, but it also makes Oskar a demanding little person rather than a rhetorical construct. A grade-school-age child who finds a key, thinks his doting father left it to him as one last puzzle to solve, and tries to meet every single person to whom the key might belong — the absurdity of that plot is meant to give Oskar lots of room to discover his own grief and the meaning of that emotion.
Seeing that grief provoked, smoking towers and all, and then enacted on-screen leaves room for nothing but a bare, misguided definition. One child can't make sense of senselessness. This one does, though, by turning 9/11 into an opportunity for wide-eyed discovery. If Tom Hanks were your dad, he wouldn't let you watch this movie.