I am not one of those who believe that certain tragic events should be shielded from artistic examination. The acute emotions that emanate from publicly shared grief can be a catalyst for creative studies of the human ethos. But, while the line separating exploration from exploitation is one an artist should not avoid, it is also one that can be easily and perilously crossed.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tackles 9/11, a cinematic third-rail used as the milieu for films both brilliant (United 93) and inept (World Trade Center; Remember Me). Its premise is apposite and affecting: A 10-year-old boy copes with the loss of his father, who perished on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. However, the problems with this pious adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's Oprah-approved 2005 novel are both extreme and incredible.
Before his death, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) and his son Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn) are an inseparable duo, mixing trips to Thomas' jewelry shop and Central Park with their ongoing game of "Reconnaissance Mission," which would send Oskar out in search of clues to solve make-believe mysteries (such as the fate of a fabled "sixth borough"). Their inexhaustible quality time appears to have the more fundamental aim of coaxing the socially awkward Oskar out of his shell.
Those familiar with high-functioning autism and other behavioral disorders will recognize some telltale signs of Oskar's affect. Some might also object to Oskar's more caricatured tics, such as the tambourine he constantly carries around and rattles to calm himself. For some reason, however, director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) remains vague about Oskar's condition—all we get, in one of the boy's typically precocious moments, is an offhand remark that he was once tested for Asperger's, but "the results were inconclusive." In so doing, Daldry squanders the opportunity for an informed, respectful look at families coping with this issue.
The rest of the audience is placed in the innocent position of recoiling against, if not outright disliking, the garrulous, hyper-emotional preteen. When not self-inflicting bruises on himself or repeatedly listening to the voice messages Thomas left once his death seemed imminent, Oskar screams at all the adults in his life and tells his mother (Sandra Bullock) that she's "an absentee parent" (no proof provided) and should have been the one who died in the Twin Towers instead of his dad.
A year after 9/11, Oskar discovers while rummaging through his father's closet a key inside a small packet with the word "Black" written on it. Believing this to be one final quest, he canvases the phone book to categorize, map and then visit all 472 people named Black in hopes of matching the key with its corresponding lock. This fairy tale of an unsupervised 10-year-old child roaming the streets of New York City conveniently allows Daldry to foist a greeting card cross-section of the five boroughs under the guise of communal uplift.
In a panoply of cloying cardboard cutouts, the lone, all-too-brief standout is Max van Sydow as an elderly, mysteriously mute neighbor who communicates using a notepad and, as Oskar somehow knows and relays via incessant voiceovers, hails from Dresden and lived through "some really bad stuff." That description, in essence, sums up the function of 9/11 in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close—a stage prop of sorrow unbothered by context or consequences, present only to help personal anguish masquerade as something profound, little different than the love triangle in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. As the plot threads coagulate, one of the Blacks (Jeffrey Wright) solemnly and with a straight face laments the fact that the post-9/11 proliferation of missing-persons flyers hampered his search for a family heirloom. Some really bad stuff, indeed.