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Movie review: Protagonist in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” goes on search for dad’s last embrace

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*** 1/2 STAR RATING (out of 4)

Oskar Schell, protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9-11 novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” is bright and amazing in ways precocious and exhausting.

The 9-year-old inventor, tambourine player and only child of Thomas and Linda Schell had been tested for Asperger’s syndrome. The diagnosis was “inconclusive,” the 2007 novel stated.

As compelling as he is on the page, young Oskar might have been a tough sell on the screen in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

So, in director Stephen Daldry’s beautiful balm of a movie, gone is Oskar’s habit of saying “What the?” about nearly everything. Gone, too, is how the boy constantly described the weight of loss, the heft of his depression, as wearing “heavy boots.”

When his father was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Oskar’s boots became leaden.

A bad day, confusing encounter or a bout of anxiety after “The Worst Day” made them even heavier.

Newcomer Thomas Horn carries the weight of Oskar’s sorrow and the responsibility for the movie’s emotional tug on his slender shoulders.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock play his parents. In Oskar’s flashbacks, Thomas Schell is a mentor, as well as an attentive friend to his at-times-tentative, other-times-bold son.

In the post-9-11 present, Linda Schell is pensive and strangely permissive. If Linda doesn’t get her son, Thomas was the instigator of Oskar’s imagination. He was the guy who buried treasures and challenged Oskar to seek and find.

When Oskar comes upon a key in a closet left by his father, he does just that. The key is in an envelope with the name “Black” written on it.

Oskar undertakes an adventure to meet every Black in the phone book and find the lock his key will open. He’s joined for this search by his grandmother’s tenant, known as “the Renter.”

Stage great Zoe Caldwell does quiet work as the boy’s grandmother. Max von Sydow does even quieter work as the mute man with the replies “No” and “Yes” written across his palms.

Screenwriter Eric Roth’s beneficent distillation of Foer’s novel has left some of the books’ most demanding themes barely mentioned.

For instance, the Allied bombings of the German city of Dresden were foundational to the story of the Schell family, but they don’t figure in here.

For this, it has been judged by some critics as too sentimental a treatment of 9/11.

There are always sacrifices made when a work leaps from page to screen. Lost are author Jonathan Safran Foer’s most pointed (and thoughtful) ruminations on war and terror and personal lives contorted by political divides.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is less concerned with national trauma than it is with communal healing. The city Oskar makes his way from borough to borough, apartment complex to brownstone, is one of ethnic variety. It is our melting pot.

As much as Hanks’ and Bullock’s presence confirms that the film is a prestige project, they are just two very able performers in an ensemble ready to serve the story of a place and a boy. John Goodman plays a security guard. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright take on a vital role as two more people named Black, reminding audiences that there are many forms of grief.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” focuses on the story of a grieving child making his way through a city that knows his sorrow.

If imagining a city where people open their doors (or don’t) to a boy with a key and a ton of questions is sentimental … then it is vitally, beautifully so.

Lisa Kennedy

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Comments
  • comment avatar Gman January 30, 2012

    Hey Lisa, my family lives in Denver too! I am the person in charge of “media screening” in our family so that‘s how I found your blog, but I wasn’t expecting it to be connected to Denver. This is a great resource and I will refer my wife as she is in charge of “other activities” as I call it since I prefer movies and TV. I noticed Peter Pan is coming to town too which I know she will be VERY interested in as that is her favorite childhood story. I will probably wait until “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” comes out on video to “preview” it before I show it to my kids. My 7-year-old doesn’t know about 9-11 to my knowledge, and I never really thought about bringing it up until now. I think relating the grief to something else she understands would be best and I can brief her before seeing it if my wife and I decide to show it to her. I however would LOVE to see it. I get my movies from our Blockbuster Movie Pass and I like that it is an all-you-can-watch kind of service, including Blu-ray, DVD and streaming. Oh, I found out at work (I work for Dish, the new owners) that Blockbuster is adding 3,000 new streaming and DVD titles for kids starting in February. We screen what our kids watch so it is nice to have more choices. I respect a “reinterpretation” of a book, as it is impossible to give the same detail in a movie. If the “sentimental” approach is given, and it is effective, it can leave a lasting imprint, as I hope this movie does with me.

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