It's no surprise that the grief-drenched Sept. 11 drama "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" should turn out incredibly mawkish. A cloying exercise in sentimentality, the film also winds up extremely annoying, even infuriating.
Director Stephen Daldry's film, featuring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, centers on the worst day most Americans have lived through, an event whose memory still pains even those who suffered no personal loss in the terrorist attacks.
Yet it exists in some bizarrely contrived alternate reality through which Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, adapting Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, fabricate the perfect cleansing ritual for a Sept. 11 Manhattan family in mourning. Perfect for them, that is, not for a movie audience.
This story is not a catharsis. It's a cheat that has nothing to do with overcoming sorrow in the real world, where Sept. 11 happened.
That said, in fairness, fans of the book might like Daldry's approach, which is a true class act in its production and the talent involved. Along with Hanks and Bullock, the compelling cast includes Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright and John Goodman in small but effective roles.
Newcomer Thomas Horn, the 13-year-old star who was cast after the filmmakers saw him on a "Jeopardy!" kids episode, is a mixed bag, holding his own among the adult actors but, through no fault of his own, forced to behave with excessive shrillness much of the time.
That's because his character, Oskar Schell, may or may not have Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism (his medical tests, we're told, were inconclusive). You make allowances in life for people you encounter with autism, but spending two hours with a fictional character possessing autistic qualities can be grating.
Oskar is a compulsive, unsociable kid, whose difficulties relating to the outside world are tempered by imaginative mind games and pastimes engineered by his father, Thomas (Hanks).
In flashbacks throughout the film, Thomas appears as teacher, guide and nurturer for Oskar. Thomas challenges his son to bridge the gap between his inner world and reality, inspiring the boy with puzzles, mystery treks around the city and tales of an ethereal New York City "sixth borough" that simply floated away to who knows where.
After Thomas dies in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, Oskar is left adrift. Alone with his mother, Linda (Bullock), with whom he's always had an awkward relationship, Oskar finds home life more strained than ever, his mom mired in her own grief.
Then Oskar discovers a key among his father's belongings with the name "Black" attached. Convinced it's a clue to a vital secret his dad left for him to reveal, Oskar sets forth to visit everyone named Black listed in the New York phone books in hopes of finding the lock that key will fit.
Accompanying him on many of these journeys is a mute lodger (von Sydow) who lives with Oskar's grandmother and may or may not be the grandfather that left Thomas to grow up without a dad himself decades earlier. The filmmakers never really explore the parallels between von Sydow's character and Oskar's fatherlessness; with his ancient, sad but compassionate eyes, von Sydow gives an expressive performance, but he's there mainly as someone Oskar can talk with on his adventures.
If not for von Sydow, the film might have been even more awash in voice-over narration by Oskar, which nearly suffocates the story early on. It's relentless, a torrent of strange associations and connections Oskar uses to make sense of the world, representative of the boy's breathless first-person narration in Foer's novel, but way too much of an earful in a film.
The movie does provide a lovely visual travelogue through the nooks and crannies of New York, and Daldry does not shy from reviving terrible memories by depicting the burning towers or victims leaping to their deaths. Cinematographer Chris Menges provides a wispy, dreamlike sheen to the film that nicely complements Oskar's fairy-tale-in-Manhattan quest.
"Extremely Loud" has heartfelt moments of redemption and reconciliation, particularly in scenes with Davis and Wright as a couple of the people Oskar encounters on his search. And it's hard not to tear up a bit as Bullock's seemingly callous Linda reveals what she's been up to while little Oskar wanders the city.
Hanks is at his most lovable as the finest dad a troubled kid — any kid, really — could ever have.
As everyone works through their pain, it all sounds so sweet and life-affirming. Yet it feels so extremely soppy and incredibly phony.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language. Running time: 129 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.