‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ is both heartfelt and air-headed

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

About “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close…”

The title alone is like a sitting duck.

It becomes “Extremely Dumb and Incredibly Cloying.” Or “Extremely Self-Absorbed and Dangerously Moronic.” Or…well, I’ll leave it to you.

Based on a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, Stephen Daldry’s, (“The Hours”) new movie centers on an 11-year-old named Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn) who possibly suffers from a mild form of Asperger’s. At least we know something’s off, because his doting dad (Tom Hanks) makes up puzzles and games and scavenger hunts to bring the boy out of his shell.

On what Oskar will only refer to as “the worse day,” (I’m with him there), Hanks is downtown in a meeting at — yes — the World Trade Center. Making it home before his mom (Sandra Bullock, gamely trying an Upper West Side accent), Oskar hears his father’s increasingly worried messages on their answering machine.

Making a surprisingly quick and focused decision (given his disability, especially), the boy hides the machine and replaces it with a duplicate so Mom won’t have to suffer through the tape.

Side Note: The very notion that one could purchase anything as mundane as an answering machine anytime after 9 am on 9/11 would strike me as hard to swallow, except I had friends up there who told me how their lives continued as usual for a little while because they lived in the Village or Uptown.

Anyway, back to the movie…all this is prologue, in a sense, as are the repeated flashbacks to Oskar’s interplay with his father. The meat of the movie concerns a certain key Oskar discovers in an envelope with the word “Black” on it. He believes said key will unlock some final message from his dad.

Now here’s the truly hard-to-swallow part: Oskar, who can barely take the elevator by himself, roams all over the five boroughs, looking up people with the last name “Black.”

He finds ‘em, — a veritable cross-section of the Big Apple melting pot, played by a veritable royal flush of fine performers like Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. He also happens on a companion for his travels: an elderly mute (Max Von Sydow) who may or may not be his grandfather and, most certainly, is a Holocaust survivor.

An incomprehensible tragedy like 9/11 (or the Holocaust) demands a very careful approach. Paul Greengrass (best known as a “Bourne” director) managed this delicate balance in his 2006 movie “United 93,” which recreated, fictionally, in real time, the trajectory (emotional as much as anything else) of that doomed flight. And he pulled it off spectacularly, managing somehow to be both steely-eyed and empathetic.

So, if you’re looking for some sort of 9/11 catharsis, please watch “United 93.”

Daldry’s film (I haven’t read the novel) is simultaneously heartfelt and air-headed. Oskar’s quest may have worked on the page, but watching his on-screen mission strikes me as perilously close to 9/11 porn (for lack of a better term).

The movie seems to wallow in loss and confusion, as well as that one-brief-shining-moment when everybody — New Yorkers in particular and the world in general — pulled together and agreed, this is wrong.

That this is beyond wrong. This is appalling… and sickening.

I didn’t personally know anyone who died in the Twin Towers. But I do know a few brave souls who behaved like heroes. One who immediately comes to mind is Richard Zoglin, a former TV critic in Atlanta, who left for Time Magazine. Time’s offices are around 50th Street, but he was at the WTC because he had jury duty. Instead of turning around and heading for the hills (anywhere north of Chinatown), he whipped out his notebook and reported to his editors from the scene.

Well, just passing that story along summoned up more emotion for me than the entirety of “Extremely Loud.” And it goes beyond personal connection. It goes to something authentic and spontaneous.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is this: good intentions don’t always translate into great movies.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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