Phew, made it in the end. I got through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close without actually attempting to kill myself. But it was touch and go in the dark there: lucky the seats were padded. There are some in Hollywood who torment us with their idea of comedy (Adam Sandler), and some who do so with fantasy (M Night Shyamalan). The director Stephen Daldry has here devised a two-pronged instrument of torture, one of tragedy, one of whimsy, and he pokes us with one or the other for a merciless two hours.
The film is adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, about a precocious nine-year-old boy's response to losing his father in the World Trade Centre attacks. As annoying as the book was, it showed ambition in its shuttling between the historical catastrophes of 9/11 and the Allied firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, as experienced by the boy's grandfather. That sense of perspective has been dropped in Eric (Forrest Gump) Roth's screenplay, which shifts its entire emotional weight on to the young narrator. If you don't take to his voice in the book, you'll find even less to love about his voiceover in the film.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a couple of years older than in the novel but pretty much the same character, a fearful, inquisitive, hyperarticulate child with possibly a touch of Asperger's Syndrome. (Or it could be just a New Yorker's rudeness.) He's still traumatised by what happened on 9/11, "the worst day" as he calls it, and has assembled a private shrine to his father, who may have been one of the jumpers that morning. He takes the rage out on his mother (Sandra Bullock), sunk within her own grief.
Rummaging in his dad's closet he happens upon a key inside a brown envelope, and decides that it's invested with a mystical power of connection to his late father (Tom Hanks, in flashback, at his most ingratiatingly chummy). A single word, "Black", written on the envelope, inspires Oskar on a quest: he will track across the five boroughs of New York in search of every person named Black until he finds the key's owner.
Let's accept for a moment that a pre-teen with a neurotic terror of bridges, tall buildings and public transport could pull off such a quixotic challenge in New York. Let's also allow that he barely seems to go to school, and that he talks to everyone in the same arch, pseudo-adult fashion. Let's even grant that a kid who doesn't know how to be with his own mother will be able to cope with an unlimited number of strangers. Let all that pass. Where the film really affronts credulity is the way those strangers embrace and welcome Oskar as if he were a gift from the divine. The very first door he knocks on propels him into the middle of a chilly marital stand-off, yet the wife, Abby Black (Viola Davis), despite her streaming tears invites the boy inside and gives him a picture of an elephant. Saintly forbearance is the name of the game.
Even if Oskar were an adorable waif, the emollient response he gets feels very unlikely. That he's a full-on, world-class precocious pain in the ass is a deal-breaker, at least to the audience. Daldry, amazingly, seems quite deaf to the problem, and indulges his young star with tantrums, self-dramatising displays of victimhood and the sort of impudent back chat that deserves a good slap. (I can hear the police sirens coming for me now.) One can't blame young Thomas Horn for this – it's the script that's forced it on him, while Alexandre Desplat's music slathers every sentimental beat in tranquillising strings. Halfway through Oskar acquires a companion for his perambulations. Max von Sydow, importing a little European gravitas, plays an old man who's renting a room from Oskar's grandmother and toting his own burden of loss around, to the point that he no longer speaks.
At first, I thought his muteness a mercy, sparing us as it did any more of Roth's screenplay. The downside is that it gives Oskar more scope to jabber away. Has there ever been such a needy minor in all movies? "Are you sure you love me?" he asks his mother, who's done nothing but show him love throughout. Is it meant to be cute that he embarks on his footslogs around the city holding a tambourine to calm his nerves? Again, it's more like the eccentric dab of detail a literary novelist would attach to a child, rather than how an actual child would behave. On the page you might just get away with it; on screen, it's another groan-worthy contrivance.
By the end I found myself resenting the film's use of 9/11 as its crisis point. Losing his beloved dad is a tragedy for Oskar, but the preposterous whimsy that swirls around his grieving process reduces the event's significance. The collapse of the towers, the image of Hanks falling in poetic slow motion through the air, are devices to pimp for emotion and tears.
Those who actually lost loved ones on the day would be justified in feeling that the film-makers have piggybacked their grief – the film has nothing of use to say otherwise. Maybe it's Daldry who needs a good slap, though he may point to the fact that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. I don't think even the Academy would dare to reward something as mawkish and self-regarding as this.