Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright
Since his phenomenally successful directing debut with Billy Elliott, the British theatre veteran Stephen Daldry has specialised in intelligent literary adaptations that address weighty themes such as the Holocaust, suicide and Aids. On paper, he seems a solid choice to adapt Jonathan Safran Foer's second novel about an anxious and mildly autistic nine-year-old New Yorker struggling to process his father's death in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Sadly, with a tear-jerking script by Eric Roth of Forrest Gump fame, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close plays more like a joke-free sequel to the Home Alone movies.
Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, an eccentric Manhattan schoolboy who discovers a mysterious key left behind by his late father (Tom Hanks), and sets out on a series of missions across the city's five boroughs in a bid to locate its possible owner. His travels bring him into contact with hundreds of similarly troubled souls, including an elderly German who may well be his grandfather (Max Von Sydow) and a woman in the middle of a bitter divorce (Davis).
Published in 2005, Foer's novel received mixed reviews, with some critics declaring it shallow and opportunistic. Even so, it still enjoyed a broadly positive reception. Daldry's film version has fared less well, perhaps because it sweetens and simplifies the source material, diluting its quirky tone and amplifying its syrupy sentimentality. Too loud, too close.
A 13-year-old novice cast on the strength of his prize-winning appearance on a TV quiz show, Horn is not a compelling screen presence, possibly because he is required to strike an awkward balance between Hollywood cuteness and emotional blankness. Hanks is also a lazy choice as the doting dad, rolling out his golly-shucks All-American Everyman shtick for the 200th time. And poor Bullock is lumbered with even thinner material as the opaque, distant, grief-scarred mother who is redeemed by a jarringly preposterous volte-face in the final act.
Even more irritating is Von Sydow's silent-movie turn as a traumatised war veteran who has chosen to remain mute, communicating only via written notes and hand gestures. While the 82-year-old Swedish screen legend still has a marvellously expressive face, earning an Oscar nomination for this lugubrious mime act, his character's refusal to speak is a pained piece of whimsy which starts to feel ever more gratingly contrived as the story unfolds. In pure entertainment terms, Daldry and his major-league cast deliver a competent, sporadically engaging story. But with each passing scene, the sub-Spielberg clichés thicken. American fathers are just overgrown boys who love old-fashioned adventure stories? Check. New York is full of lonely eccentrics who only need a hug to make things better? Check. African Americans are all soulful, spiritual and wise? Check. And so on. Extremely trite and incredibly banal.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the deep scars left by September 11 and its planet-shaking aftershocks remain. Neither single family tragedies, nor cataclysmic acts of global terrorism, can be explained or healed by infantilised fairy tales. Even a decade later, it still feels far too early to give this terrible chapter in history a feel-good Hollywood ending.