Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is not the story of a conventional Everyman as a child -- Oskar Schell is no Everyboy.

No, Oskar is an extraordinary lad -- a smart, painfully shy boy. His only really deep human connection is with his father (Tom Hanks), who recognizes the specialness of his child not as a disadvantage to be regretted but an opportunity to draw him closer and nudge Oskar toward a rich life shared with others. Thomas Schell was a failed biochemist who became a jeweler, but whose real occupation was a Biblical sort of shepherd, tending to a flock of one.

But the elder Schell dies in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and Oskar is left utterly alone. True, his mother (Sandra Bullock) is technically present, but Oskar correctly labels her an absentee parent. That's the sort of kid Oskar is: he knows what an absentee parent is, and he's hurting so badly inside he lashes out at his mother by telling her to her face that she's a failed mom.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, adapted for the screen by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") and directed by Stephen Daldry, who has made four feature films, all of which I've loved ("The Hours," "The Reader" and "Billy Elliot" are the previous three.)

It is not a movie that consciously tries to be "the" film about 9/11 -- what Oskar refers to simply as "The Worst Day." But in its stark exploration of wrenching loss and the capricious way human lives collide with each other, it best captures the emotional vacuum felt by an entire nation more than 11 years ago, and to a lessening degree since.

Oskar's father often assigned adventurous tasks, or "expeditions" to him. Ostensibly scientific undertakings, they were really exercises designed to force Oskar to interact with new people and explore the real world around him. Precocious and earnest, Oskar recognizes the true meaning of these assignments, but still tackles them with enthusiasm because he so adores his father.

Shortly before his death, Oskar's dad set before him the grandest expedition of all: discovering the mythical 6th borough of Manhattan. This mission takes on new meaning when the boy discovers a key hidden inside a vase in his father's untouched closet. Unmarked, with only the cryptic word "Black" printed on a piece of paper, Oskar concludes this clue must unlock the puzzle of Thomas Schell's death.

With great deliberateness, Oskar sets out to the far reaches of New York City, attempting to interview every person named Black to see if they know about the mystery of the key. Since Oskar suffers panic attacks at the mere prospect of mass transit, he will walk everywhere he needs to go on his free Saturdays. He calculates it will take him three years, which in his unadorned narration Oskar recognizes is his way of extending the time he gets to spend with his father, or at least his fading memory.

With such a non-traditional protagonist, I was not surprised to learn that Thomas Horn, the amazing young actor who portrays him, came to this film project in an atypical way. This is his first acting credit of any sort; he was discovered after winning a tournament of "Teen Jeopardy" at the age of 12. Like Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit" or Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," this is the sort of performance that feels almost ethereal is its ability to tap such emotional depths and complex inner thoughts in one so young.

Other able performers turn up in supporting roles. Viola Davis plays the first woman Oskar encounters in his travels, one who has suffered her own recent loss. Jeffrey Wright plays a businessman mourning the death of his own father. John Goodman is the security guard at Oskar's building who trades good-natured insults with him. Max von Sydow turns up as the mysterious, silent man living as a renter in his grandmother's apartment right across the way, who takes an unexpected role in the boy's quest.

Bullock's role as the distraught mother struggling to come to grips with her son's odd acting out would seem to be a thankless one, but later on she shines a new light on their relationship that shocks even  young Oskar.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" hasn't been in the conversation of the best films of the year, but it deserves to be. It's a viscerally enthralling story about a singular boy trying to find his place in the world when his only anchor is ripped away. What a journey -- Oskar's, and ours.

3.5 stars out of four

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