From Billy Elliot to The Hours to The Reader, director Stephen Daldry has turned repressing your sexuality into something the upper class can feel sexy about. The people in his movies suffer the pain of being trapped in the closet, but they look really good doing it, and then it turns out they just needed to watch ballet or read a novel. If you recognize Swan Lake or Mrs. Dalloway, Daldry suggests, then you have nothing in common with homophobes and Nazis, and that's important because it makes you hot. For his new film, Daldry has adapted Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This means throwing out the sex and glamorizing childhood sadness instead of adult sadness. In the back of cinema's lucrative closet, Daldry has discovered a cradle.
Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, a nerdy 9-year-old who recently lost his beloved father (Tom Hanks) in the Sept. 11 attacks. He finds a key and imagines it is part of one last scavenger hunt designed for him by his dad. Desperate to keep the good times going, he searches New York City for the matching lock. "My name is Oskar Schell," he tells people. "Did you know my father, Thomas Schell?" A tearful, preoccupied woman (Viola Davis) tries to get rid of him, but he talks his way into her home. Oblivious that her husband is moving out, he admires a photo of an elephant crying, then he lectures her: "Only humans can cry tears. It was probably manipulated in Photoshop.â
Oskar is supposed to be mildly autistic—that's why he ignores the feelings of others and obsesses over scientific trivia. But when it comes to his own feelings, the autism conveniently vanishes. "Don't be disappointed in me!" he whines. He doesn't have the challenging, heroic un-self-consciousness of a really autistic character like Napoleon Dynamite. Oskar looks and moves like a normal boy—first-time actor Horn is naturally precocious onscreen—but he talks like Woody Allen, with a neurotic, atheist superiority. People who condescend to children or religion may find this faux naïf rather adorable. A blue-state holy fool, he touches the lives of lonely grownups in the vague, cloying fashion of many stories about cute kids.
So it's not surprising that Oskar's father is played by Forrest Gump, and that the screenplay is by Eric Roth, who wrote that movie about a red-state holy fool. Like the American history in Forrest Gump, in this movie, 9/11 is not a reality to be examined, but instead, a boy's symbol of adult tragedy, what Oskar calls "the worst day." The filmmakers revisit that day merely to evoke a childish dread of death. This follows Foer's book, which mixed the sorrow of 9/11 with lots of baby thoughts about war and Shakespeare and Stephen Hawking, and even a one-second movie—a twin towers flipbook. It was an upper-class version of Kids Say the Darndest Things When Their Fathers Are Killed in a Terrorist Attack. It appealed to sheltered urban readers. Their impotence in the face of destruction was turned into something arty they could play with and feel proud of rather than responsible for.
For Warner Bros.' two-hour blockbuster version, director Daldry knows how to do proud artiness. He concentrates, as usual, on rosy skin, maudlin musical montage, and look-at-me camera effects. These include Oskar's visions of his father's death, which are like a morbid picture book that doesn't teach you anything. You almost expect to see that dastardly airplane peeking impishly around a corner, or Rudy Giuliani. There's a five-second montage with a beatific gay man, as if to signal that Daldry has lost interest in exploiting queer masochism. Now, apparently, he exploits intellectual masochism. It's painful to watch.
15 SEE IT: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport and Cornelius. Additional locations were not available due to the holiday. Call Regal Cinemas for showtimes.