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One of the many reasons Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close earned so much praised when it was published in 2005 was its inherent literary power. Using tricks (some would say gimmicks) like color pages, illustrations and even blank pages, the novel was able to dig deeper into its multi-layered narrative about grief and recovery in the wake of a tragedy. The main thread focused on precocious 11-year-old Oskar Schell as he recovered from the death of his father on 9/11, but a large part of the story was about Oskar's grandparents, survivors of the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, who experience of war was even more visceral and horrifying than that most New Yorkers who witnessed the Twin Towers fall.
The grandparents' story is excised from the movie version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that's just one of the many ways the film falls flat in the faces of the deeply textured wonder of the novel. Condensed by screenwriter Eric Roth and directed by Stephen Daldry, the movie eschews the novel's emotional complexity and instead chooses to wallow almost entirely in grief, plunging us into Oskar's (Thomas Horn) memories of his father (Tom Hanks, in flashbacks) and painful feelings of loss and never taking us back out. Oskar's sorrow is very real and tangible-- Daldry remains excellent at casting young boys and getting naturalistic performances out of them-- but the movie doesn't ever move past it, simply wringing easy tears out of the naturally heartbreaking situation of a son mourning his father.
Oskar himself is a hurdle the film never quite clears, a borderline-autistic, very smart kid whose coping mechanisms can be read as a lot of needless quirks, from rattling a tambourine to calm his nerves to building a shrine to his dead dad in a top corner of his closet. In the book Oscar is capable of being funny and clever and empathetic to his family, but in the movie he is frustratingly cut-off, explained to us largely through a gallery of strangers who receive him warmly, even when we ourselves have no impulse to do so. The film centers around Oskar's biggest and most unlikely coping mechanism of all, a scavenger hunt for every person in the city with the last name "Black"-- he's convinced one of them knows something about his father, for reasons that must only make sense to a grieving 11-year-old. The first Black he meets is played by Viola Davis, on the verge of tears and in the midst of a fight with her husband (Jeffrey Wright); like the master actress she is, Davis wring maximum emotional impact from her short scene, but Oskar's encounters with every Black after that-- and there are many-- is more of a Many Faces of New York montage than anything remotely as true or meaningful.
After about an hour of hunting for Blacks, Oskar is joined in his travels by a man who identifies himself as a renter in his grandmother's apartment. Mute as a result of the horrors he witnessed in World War II, the renter is played by Max von Sydow, an actor capable of bringing the gravity, purpose and even humor that the film had sorely lacked. The renter-- whom both we and Oskar suspect is someone much closer to him-- builds a relationship with the boy that actually feels real, partly because Daldry gives it time to breathe amid Oskar's many frenzied hunts and flashbacks to 9/11, which he calls "the worst day." Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close often feels like being trapped inside Oskar's shattered, frantic mind, and von Sydow has a way of slowing the film down-- he never overplays his character's personal tragedy, but looking into von Sydow's weathered face, you see the cruelty of the 20th century reflected back. It's a broader perspective, beyond the hurting soul of an 11-year-old, that the rest of the movie desperately needs.
There's one moment with Sandra Bullock, who plays Oskar's mother, that comes close to that same larger emotional story, but by then the movie is hopelessly off track. With its occasional flashes of honesty Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close mostly proves that Foer's source material is solid, that the author wove a tricky and dense story that added up to something; by condensing it and excising many elements, Daldry has untangled a substantial knot that needed to stay exactly the way it was. It's not just that the movie isn't as good as the book; it's that the movie makes no argument for existing in the first place.