Few recent films have attracted as much critical loathing as Stephen Daldry's visually lush but tone-deaf adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a precocious New York boy coping with the death of his father. On paper perfect Oscar bait, due to its prestige sheen, tony cast and literary origins, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close ended up attracting a heap of critical revulsion, some of which well deserved, due to its head-on, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the open wound of American society that is 9/11.

     Just as in the source novel, 11-year-old Oskar Schell's doting dad died in the Twin Towers collapse, and the film doesn't shy away from the images rolling around Oskar's mind of falling men, in what is a jarring, ill-advised recurrent visual motif that is wholly unnecessary to the film's elegant structure. It's not the only blunder Mr. Daldry and Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth commit in streamlining the book's sprawling conceit for the purposes of filmic movement. There's a really good narrative, dealing with death and mourning, hiding in here somewhere, visible in how Oskar's "expedition" into New York City looking for the lock where a key his father left behind will fit brings him in touch with other New Yorkers, and in how the sharing of their individual stories and life experiences works as a process of communal grief.

     But Messrs. Daldry and Roth are never really interested in those other stories other than as props to Oskar's own tale, flattening everything into a neat, predictable, conventional storyline arc instead of embracing the chaos and hurt that would give it an actual beating heart instead of just a simple emotion-milking machine. The final act, in particular, suggests that everything in this undoubtedly sincere but ultimately very awkward movie was an enormous manipulation with little or no regard for the emotional truth of its underlying concept. And yet, the uniform excellence of the performances and especially of the stunning first-timer, non-pro Thomas Horn as Oskar, along with the occasional elegance and flair of Mr. Daldry's handling, make it very hard to totally dismiss a film that wants to deal with 9/11 in an adult way, even if it then squanders that desire and hides its quivering, uncertain heart underneath a gloopy glazing of prime and often ill-judged schmaltz.

Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn; Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell; Max von Sydow.
     Director, Stephen Daldry; screenplay, Eric Roth, from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; cinematography, Chris Menges (colour by DeLuxe, widescreen); music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, K. K. Barrett; costume designer, Ann Roth; editor, Claire Simpson; producer, Scott Rudin (Warner Bros. Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions), USA, 2011, 129 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), February 23rd 2011. 


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