In 2002, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu contributed to a set of short films about the 9/11 attacks.
His offering was an art video that showed repeated newscast images of people jumping from the World Trade Center. At the time, more than one critic complained that it was in bad taste, if not obscene. Now, 10 years on, in a prestige Hollywood production, we not only see elegantly staged re-creations of those falls, but in one shot, Tom Hanks plummeting towards us at full speed.
Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which ends with several pages of photos; flick them and you get a body floating upwards, towards the top floors of the twin towers. I haven't read the book, but I've glanced at its plethora of pictures, typographical tweaks and multi-coloured typefaces – as if Tristram Shandy had been put together by the design department of McSweeney's. Daldry's film is in that spirit, full of gorgeously shot (by Chris Menges) visual quirks and editing conceits, all to create something that will either melt your heart or make you recoil in horror – an innocent child's-eye view of 9/11.
Hero Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is an 11-year-old New Yorker with an original take on things – which is to say, he may have Asperger's, or another condition that manifests itself as a poetic, frenetically fertile and hyper-systematised world view, along with assorted eccentricities such as the need to carry a tambourine everywhere. And then one day, his loving dad Thomas (Tom Hanks) fails to come home.
Later, the stricken Oskar finds a key in an envelope with the word "Black" written on it – and decides that he needs to visit everyone in New York named Black, in the hope of finding the owner and thereby, obscurely, Closure. Oskar meets many people, most of them happy to share stories, wisdom and even hugs, or show him curiosities such as a photograph of an elephant crying. Thomas is accompanied on his quest by a mysterious old mute, who communicates through little handwritten notices. He's played likeably by Max von Sydow, smiling bemusedly. Von Sydow once played chess with Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Now he's holding up flash cards to a child, and he's got an Oscar nomination for it; funny old world, the movies.
There's little so awkward in cinema as the attempt to make a child-like film. Stephen Daldry, who isn't naturally a child-like director, seems to have absorbed the spirit of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine, etc), who is – and the result is bogus. With its manic montages, wry non sequiturs and "magical" moments, this feels like 9/11, Amélie-style.
You feel brutish complaining about child actors not being likeable, but I found Thomas Horn offputtingly knowing in his gauche eccentricity. And Hanks is as jovially tender a screen Everydad as you could ever wish to punch. But you won't really begin gagging until the finale, when Mom (Sandra Bullock) shows that there's no love like a mother's love, no matter how contrived a plot must be to prove it. This is a horrible folly of a film – not offensive particularly, just extravagantly inadequate to its subject.
Jonathan Romney watches Woody Harrelson's cop thriller Rampart
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