What may work on the page doesn't always hold up well under the harsh light of the silver screen. Take Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the Jonathan Safran Foer novel that beguiled many readers but wilts as an Oscar-season drama. Academy Award-winning director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) attempt to replicate the novel's subjective treatment of a boy protagonist. But once literalized by the camera, the story's creakiness begins to seem extremely loud and incredibly close for anyone sensitive to the contrived and cloying.
The story concerns eleven-year-old Manhattanite Oskar Schell (Oakland native and Jeopardy! Kids Week champion Thomas Horn), who is still reeling from the death of his father (Tom Hanks) in the Twin Towers. Though the boy's mother (Sandra Bullock) harbors serious concerns for her son, who seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, she does not discourage him when he becomes convinced that his puzzle-loving dad has left behind one more educational mystery: a small key that belongs to an unknown lock somewhere in the city.
And so, just as Dad's puzzles always coaxed Oskar out of his shell and into encounters with the city and its denizens, the key leads the still-grieving boy into new partnerships and experiences. Traumatic memories of "The Worst Day" and survivor's guilt linger, but the quest provides a welcome distraction. Hustling daily past his frenemy—the apartment building's doorman (John Goodman)—Oskar makes like a Law & Order detective by canvassing the five boroughs in search of answers. Oskar tentatively teams up with his across-the-street neighbor, a renter (Max von Sydow) living in the apartment of the boy's grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). Mute, the old man only communicates through scribbled notes and by flashing one of his palms, helpfully marked "Yes" and "No." In one of several not-so-surprising surprises, the renter has likewise been shaped by trauma, which makes him eminently suited to relate to Oskar but reticent to reopen old wounds.
Also among the New Yorkers Oskar meets are estranged marrieds (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) whose encounters with the boy prove disarmingly cathartic. And many will take the film in the same spirit: Horn is quite fine in delineating the boy's restless intelligence and frustrated bouts of emotion, and though his role rankles, von Sydow remains entirely magnetic (after all, 2011 was the year "silent" made a comeback). Easily the film's most harrowing, haunting scene finds the boy forcing the old man (and the audience) to listen to a series of voicemails placed by Dad on the morning of 9/11.
As a rule, though, the film's observance of hurting and healing is too clean and neat, even for a story that feints in the directions of fairy tale and a boy's-eye-view of the world. In lesser hands than Daldry's, the film could have been an unmitigated disaster, but its tony pedigree nevertheless encourages a slick treatment and doubly reassuring closure. Except as a tool for pediatric grief counseling, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close amounts to a fetishization of its own trappings (the boy, NYC, 9/11) more interested in Oscar than Oskar.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]