Brace Yourselves for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Child star Thomas Horn is so good, Stephen Daldry's weepfest nearly overcomes its Unbearable Cuteness

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François Duhamel / Warner Bros. Pictures

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which, like Hugo, features a boy with a dead father and an obsession involving a key, has a title practically begging for addenda from critics. “And Unbearably Cute” would work, along with “Deeply Contrived.” But there’s nothing to mock in the performance of Thomas Horn, the young actor who plays the lock-seeking Oskar Schell. The kid is the mainstay of director Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel. Dodging the twin minefields of preciousness and an exploitative 9/11 premise, Horn races away with the movie and makes it believably, genuinely sad.

Oskar’s father Thomas Schell Jr. (Tom Hanks), a jeweler and dream dad — playful, wise and engaged in a way that will make 99% of the parents who see this movie feel like lazy scum in contrast — had a meeting at the World Trade Center that September morning. He died, but in his last moments left six messages on his home answering machine. Though he’s only 11, the enterprising Oskar trots out into the night of that terrible day (or “the worst day,” as he calls it) and purchases a duplicate machine so he can keep his father’s last words to himself. Even his mother (Sandra Bullock, solemn and touching) doesn’t know about the device, which is hidden away on a shelf inside a cupboard capacious enough to accommodate Oskar and his growing collection of fetishized objects relating to his father.

Extremely Loud is a scrapbooker’s delight, in love with the notion of secrets and hidden objects and beings, carefully layered, all connected. Oskar goes poking through his father’s closet looking for reminders of Thomas and doesn’t just find a mysterious key but also a vase high on a shelf, and inside that is an envelope marked with a single word, “Black,” and inside that is a key. He decides it must be part of a treasure hunt devised by his father, who had a yen for that sort of thing. “Reconnaissance expedition, we called it,” Oskar narrates. “I would have to talk to people, which he knew I had a hard time doing.” (The results of Oskar’s earlier Asperger’s syndrome tests were inconclusive, but it seems his father had drawn his own conclusions.)

A year after the attacks, he sets out for a series of Saturday journeys, on foot, to check with every Black family in the phone book (all 427 of them if need be) and discover what the key unlocks. And it’s not just Oskar who is supposed to experience childlike wonder and pleasure at the quest in front of him; the viewer is meant to be equally swept away, sucked into the maze, finding comfort in the neat arrangement of all loose ends. It’s a bitch that life can’t be tied up as nicely as a children’s book, but Extremely Loud does its best to distract us into feeling that it can be. It’s got a case of arrested development.

(MORE: TIME’s 2005 Profile of Jonathan Safran Foer)

In Foer’s novel, Oskar was 9. Presumably, screenwriter Eric Roth aged him a couple of years to make it slightly more plausible that he’d be wandering New York City’s five boroughs on his own (he tells his mother that he’s going to a comic-book convention, and she’s apparently shell shocked enough not to notice the convention seems to resume every weekend), knocking on the doors of strangers. Oskar’s travels are an exercise in the kind of sunny montage that once convinced people that Ma Bell really understood the human connection. Everywhere Oskar goes, people of all races and genders (including trans-) place their hands on his head for civilian benedictions and serve up his precocious beverage of choice, iced coffee with half and half. Some weep for him. Others, softened by his pain, weep about their own sufferings, like Viola Davis, who plays a woman whose husband has just left her. It’s a pity party.

Blurring the edges of his frame and shooting urban grit as if it were art, cinematographer Chris Menges makes New York City look so whimsical and accessible, it could be one big happy village. I almost expected him to bump into the Royal Tenenbaums or drop into Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail bookstore to do some research. Oskar himself might as well live in a dollhouse; he can look out his bedroom window and see right into the apartment of his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). Even the people who close the door in Oskar’s face don’t seem so bad — it takes all kinds in the Big Apple! Where can I get one of those soft pretzels?

As if 9/11 weren’t enough of an agony, Foer’s story also has a Holocaust angle. Oskar’s grandmother has taken in an elderly boarder, a mute Holocaust survivor known only as the Renter (Max von Sydow), who becomes the one person Oskar can confide in. The Renter joins Oskar in his search for the key’s rightful place, although it’s clear that he, like the audience, finds the quest wildly quixotic. (If the lock were to be found, well, that would make the movie Deeply, Deeply Contrived.) The real suspense of the movie lies not with the key and its supposed hidden message but with his father’s literal messages, the ones on the machine. When will we know what Oskar heard on the morning of Sept. 11? Once he shares some messages, will he share them all? I felt like a looky-loo hanging around and waiting for Oskar to hit Play, curious, yes, but also hoping the movie would be discreet enough to keep some secrets from that day when the towers fell.

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Ordinary skyscrapers excite the imagination. All that anonymous humanity in steel cradles high above us — what stories they must hold. But the cradle that falls? Writers are bound to pounce on it like children scooping up the innards of a piñata. In another 50 years, the world of fiction may be able to count as many made-up victims of 9/11 as real ones. (Robert Pattinson beat Hanks to the cinematic punch, playing another World Trade Center visitor in Remember Me.) While those real people are still very present in the minds of their mourners, including the children who never got to meet their fathers, it seems a little nervy to nudge them out of the way so that audiences may weep for the saintly Thomas Schell Jr.

But that is purely a question of taste — what makes one person squeamish reduces another to sobs. In some cases (mine), it can do both. I resented the neatness of the narrative, its habit of showing off its own hospital corners as it moved forward (on the off chance you don’t guess who the Renter is, you should do penance by watching Beaches, the masterwork of tear-jerking manipulation). But Horn breaks through the movie’s manipulative scrim simply with the sheer force of his emotions. Even when he’s talking extremely loudly and incredibly quickly, Oskar remains shatteringly articulate, and his pain rings as clear as a bell, particularly in his scenes with the magnificent von Sydow. The performance is devastating, even more so in light of the fact that this is his acting debut. Daldry, who handled youth with such gentle care in Billy Elliot, cast Horn last year after he won a considerable sum on teen Jeopardy! The director must have had a hunch that in this boy’s hands, everything would be illuminated.

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