Most of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2011. For nine-year-old Oskar Schell, the memory of listening to his father’s voice on the answering machine from the inside of the World Trade Center torments him every day.
Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows the story of young Oskar, played by Thomas Horn, on his journey to discover the meaning behind the mysterious key he finds in the blue vase in his father’s closet. Clinging to the memory of his dad, the exceptionally inquisitive Oskar plans an elaborate scavenger hunt across New York City, mapped by elaborate coordinate grips and nourished by apple juice.
Throughout the course of his journey across the city’s boroughs, Oskar meets a variety of memorable characters. Perhaps the most interesting is the stranger renting out a room in his grandmother’s apartment. Without speaking any words throughout the film, the man (Max von Sydow) befriends Oskar and accompanies the boy across town, teaching him important nonverbal lessons about confronting fears and knowing when to let go.
Although his screen time is limited, Tom Hanks plays the role of the Manhattan jeweler Thomas Schell, Oskar’s father, in a jovial, affectionate light. His interactions with Horn are some of the most uplifting of the film, highlighting the strength of the father-son relationship. Equally compelling is Sandra Bullock, playing Oskar’s despondent mother Linda. Even before Oskar sets off on his adventure, the distance between her and her son is painstakingly evident.
Horn’s performance as the sensitive and earnest Oskar is remarkable, especially considering his lack of previous acting experience. Producers approached the boy after he won more than $30,000 on “Jeopardy! Kids Week.” Academically adept in real life, Horn connects well with the role and his emotional outbursts appear both natural and jarring.
Other names that round out the cast include Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jeffrey Wright. In her minor role as one of Oskar’s encounters, Davis is compassionate and empathetic, but her character and talent deserve more screen time. Wright, as the man who knows the truth behind the key’s past, gives a very emotional — albeit short — performance that emphasizes the truth of the six degrees of separation theory in New York.
But while the movie has big names on the cast list, it is difficult to look beyond the fact that the plot focuses on an innocent little boy gallivanting alone across New York. Questions abound as to why Oskar is allowed to leave his Manhattan apartment without any supervision, and the absurdity of the journey itself makes it seem even less logical.
Moreover, while uplifting, the story drags on for an excessive two hours. The continual switches from flashback to present make the action seem haphazard, and there are moments of insensitivity that make the film difficult to watch. When Oskar vocally rejects his mother, leaving her nearly speechless, there is a brief moment of discomfort and unsettlement that derails the audience’s ongoing sympathy with the film’s protagonist.
As with many movies, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close struggles with its transition from the bookshelf to the movie screen. The contrivance of the plot depends too much on viewers’ emotions and lacks a true depth because of its excessive sentimentality. Everyone has a personal story about 9/11, and Oskar’s is certainly worth telling. However, while Oskar tries to move forward after the loss of his father, his story never really advances anywhere.