Beautiful Manipulation

(PG-13) ★★★☆☆

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a bold and honorable film, beautifully made and sensitively acted. It is meticulously directed. It is richly photographed, with the kind of dreamscape quality that makes New York look like a museum mural. It is also preposterous.

Every talent involved with this endeavor is first-rate. Based on the 2005 best-seller by Jonathan Safran Foer, it boasts a screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump). The cast is exemplary. The direction is by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and the music is by Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech). The word “quality” is stamped on every frame, and as movies go, it does indeed tower above the norm. In addition, the story is a wrenching mix of hope and despair about disrupted lives in the aftermath of 9/11.

So what’s wrong? The film was labored and muddled, and it wasn’t just the title. Here’s the plot: A brilliant 11-year-old boy named Oskar Schell (the remarkable Thomas Horn, who was discovered stumping the world on Jeopardy) hears the voice of his beloved Dad (Tom Hanks) for the last time on a phone from the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11. Oskar’s world turns upside down. His mom (Sandra Bullock) spends her time in bed, unable to give her son the healing he needs. A year after this life-changing horror, Oskar finds a mysterious key in his late father’s closet. The rest of the movie is about his search all over New York City to find the lock that fits the key and possibly the secret that unlocks the future.

For the most part, the adventure is as fascinating as it is daunting. Under closer analysis, the questions nag. The elaborate strategy the kid maps out to track down the lock gets more implausible by the minute. He never goes to school. His mother never goes to work. A nice literary exercise on paper, perhaps, but it wasn’t convincing onscreen.

It seems like a waste of time to list the ways the story fails, or how the daily actions of the boy prove impossible—because in a film that distills the emotional traumas of 9/11, it’s easy to overlook the flaws. The kid carries the movie and is in every scene.

Maybe the holes in the plot that need clarification are the fault of the book, which I never read, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did not affect me the way it seems to touch others. Certainly not a bad movie, but a disappointing one. It knocks itself out trying to break your heart, but it’s too starched and blow-dried for its own good. Maybe if it had manipulated me less, it would have moved me more.

(PG-13) ★★★☆☆

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