EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE directed by Stephen Daldry (USA, 2011)

Having read a few reviews prior to seeing this movie (always a mistake), I was all set to entitle this post EXTREMELY LAME & INCREDIBLY CONTRIVED. This only goes to show that you should always keep an open mind and shouldn’t take what critics say as gospel.

Steven Daldry’s movie is contrived but it is not lame.

The British director actually makes a pretty decent stab at translating a tricky story on such a sensitive topic to the big screen without laying on the sentiment too thickly. It isn’t perfect but is not the turkey some make it out to be.

Safran Foer’s novel was published in 2005, less than four years after 9/11, an event referred to throughout as “the worst day”. Images of the World Trade Center ‘jumpers’ and hearing desperate final phone messages from the Twin Towers have by now become so ingrained in our collective memory that incorporating these details in a work of fiction is bound to risk being seen as exploiting a human tragedy for the purposes of entertainment.

The movie is dominated by Thomas Horn who gives an amazing performance as the 11-year-old Oscar Schell. This is a difficult role that requires that we understand and sympathise with his tantrums and precocious behaviour after the death of the father he idolised.

Sandra Bullock is also excellent as the mother barely able to cope with her own grief let alone that of her son. The major flaw of the movie is the casting of Tom Hanks in the role of the ‘perfect’ father. Thankfully he’s not in the movie for long, but long enough to be seriously irritating. He’s meant to be clever and inspirational but just comes across as a smug and tiresome smart-ass.

Oscar is not diagnosed as being autistic but he has definite similarities with Christopher from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. He carries a tambourine to calm his nerves and has an obsession with  facts and figures; the kind of boy who knows that his walking speed is 4.4 feet per second.

After 9/11 it was normal for people to be fearful of travelling by public transport but Oscar’s heightened sensitivity means that the list of things that make him anxious are extended to include : “shoes without owners – people looking up – things with wings”.

When Oscar finds a key hidden in a vase owned by his father he sets out on a quest to discover where it came from. The only clue is that it contains an envelope labelled ‘BLACK’. He naturally assumes this is the surname of a person who knows what the key opens. In the New York phone directory he finds 472 people with this name and resolves to visit each of them to solve the mystery. He is able to devote so much time to this project because he continually skips school with a series of lies. the best of which is “they say I know too much already”.

His search takes him into the homes of ‘ordinary’ New Yorkers, practically all of whom get all warm and fuzzy when they hear the boy’s story. Along the way he bonds with a mute renter (Max Von Sydow) who lives next door to his grandmother’s apartment and who may or may not be Oscar’s paternal grandfather.

Like the novel, this is a far from conventional response to 9/11 and will be savaged by those expecting a movie that addresses this huge subject head on. It works best as a story of how ordinary lives are touched by loss and the movie captures well how trauma tears families apart but can also bring people together.