Film Review: Extremely well-acted, incredibly elusive movie

A boy (newcomer Thomas Horn) loses his father on 9/11 in  Stephen Daldry's   'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.'

Franois Duhamel/Warner Bros. Pictures

A boy (newcomer Thomas Horn) loses his father on 9/11 in Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."

From its wordy title to the impressive vocabulary and compulsive list making of its possibly autistic young narrator hero, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is a motion picture that never liberates itself from the printed page.

The movie is adapted from a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, but the purpose of this adaptation remains elusive. The film doesn't justify its independent existence, except as a way of presenting this story to that admittedly large audience that doesn't read books. Is that sufficient reason, especially when the book itself is packed with photographs, alternate typefaces, a flip cartoon and other visual gimmicks?

Mounted with customary handsome professionalism by stuffy director Stephen Daldry (the downward slope of his career can be traced from "Billy Elliot" to "The Hours" to "The Reader" to this), from a script by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), "Extremely Loud" is the story of a precocious young boy, Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn), who is desperately trying to cope with life in New York with his mother (Sandra Bullock) in the weeks after the death of his beloved father (Tom Hanks) in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Oskar is convinced that his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has left a final message for him hidden ...

Rating: PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language

Length: 129 minutes

Released: December 25, 2011 Limited

Cast: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Max von Sydow, James Gandolfini

Director: Stephen Daldry

Writer: Eric Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer

More info and showtimes »

As in Martin Scorsese's current movie, "Hugo," the quest that takes up the bulk of the movie's running time is motivated by the discovery of a mysterious key. Deducing that the key -- found inside a small envelope labeled "Black" -- is part of a final "reconnaissance expedition" planned by his jeweler dad, Oskar decides to systematically visit each Black in New York in hopes of finding a matching lock. He is accompanied during the late stages of his journey by the mysterious old man known as "the renter" (Max von Sydow), who lives with his grandmother.

Whimsical, well-acted (Viola Davis is the most purposeful of the Blacks), sentimental and more obviously implausible onscreen than on the page, "Extremely Loud" arrives in theaters a few months after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I'd say more than enough time has passed for the movies to attempt to probe America's national shock and grief, but Daldry's approach is sometimes as subtle as a plane crash. (An image of one of the towers collapsing on television is followed by a shot of Oskar crumbling to the floor.) Meanwhile, the insistent score by the suddenly ubiquitous Alexander Desplat ("The Tree of Life," "The Deathly Hallows: Part 2," "Carnage," "The Ides of March") ensures we don't fail to notice when a moment is supposed to be sad or "magical."

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