Oskar Schell, the young protagonist of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, has enough quirks to fill the cast of a dozen indie films. Always prone to a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the trauma of his father's death on Sept. 11 may have knocked his psyche off-kilter. Oskar speaks with excessive formality, knows tae kwon do moves, wears a gas mask on the subway, gives his own business card to people he meets, and has a fear of swing sets.
A few of these would be tolerable, maybe even endearing. Having him carry a tambourine to calm himself when assailed by loud noises turns out to be a little much, like he's about to launch into some annoying performance art. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tries to push its audience's emotional buttons, but most will primarily respond with empathy toward Thomas Horn, who commits to playing a frequently unlikable young man who could easily read as just a list of tics.
Oskar's most relatable quality might be that America's sweethearts, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, play his parents. The early scenes portray Hanks as a totally swell dad, who constructs elaborate scavenger hunts to sharpen his son's thinking and help him engage with other people. A year after his father's death, Oskar discovers among his father's things a key in an envelope marked "Black." Suspecting that this may be his father's final challenge, Oskar resolves to meet every New Yorker named Black to see if he can find the lock it fits and find one last message. Oskar knows perfectly well that his mission will take years, especially since he insists on traveling on foot to meet people face-to-face.
Based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close reasons that, rather than show a child process grief in a more conventional way, the roundabout approach might touch on a greater breadth of ideas and emotions. Oskar's journey provides a none-too-subtle way for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to crisscross the five boroughs of New York. The seemingly random encounters amount to a mosaic of the city's unity as well as its diversity, and attempts to honor the New York post-9/11 spirit through its people.
Only Max von Sydow rescues the film from sliding into unredeemable schmaltz. As a mute, enigmatic renter who never reveals his name, von Sydow communicates by writing messages, and has "Yes" and "No" on either palm, presumably to save paper. His budding relationship with Oskar proves highly contrived, pairing an old man who can't speak with a boy who speaks too much, but von Sydow brings enormous dignity and rueful wit to the role. Lanky and weathered, the actor looks like a man who's prevailed after a hard life, and his performance provides an authentic expression of the film's intended message.
Like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, the film approaches Sept. 11 with a mix of sanctimony and sentimentality. Director Stephen Daldry effectively dramatizes the most raw element, involving answering machine messages left by someone in one of the towers, but also cheats by withholding key bits of information as long as possible. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close ultimately pulls its punches in the name of "healing." In fact, it's downright lousy with healing. It'll heal you whether you like it or not.