In the aftermath of 9/11, the question arose of when it would be appropriate for popular art to address the events head-on. For a national tragedy of that magnitude, when would it not be “too soon”? Yet Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, an appalling adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, suggests that maybe that’s the wrong question. The 2006 docudrama United 93, once the trial balloon for “too soon,” dodged exploitation by focusing rigorously on the minutiae of a single flight. But it will always be “too soon” for Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which processes the immense grief of a city and a family through a conceit so nauseatingly precious that it’s somehow both too literary and too sentimental, cloying yet aestheticized within an inch of its life. It’s 9/11 through the eyes of a caffeinated 9-year-old Harper’s contributor.
Thomas Horn plays that 9-year-old as a boy who’s somewhere between precocious and autistic, given to channeling his energies through whimsical projects that give his intellect the exercise it needs. After his father (Tom Hanks) dies in the World Trade Center attacks, Horn discovers a key hidden in a vase in an envelope labeled “Black,” and embarks on a quest across the five boroughs to find out what the key opens and perhaps receive one last message from his dad. This involves looking up “Black” in the phone book, visiting every address—on foot, for he is too neurotic for public transit—and sharing his story. (Does a montage of all the diverse people he meets evoke the memorialized faces of the missing and the dead on 9/11? Sure does.) Sandra Bullock gets a few scenes as his exasperated mother, and Max von Sydow plays a mute old lodger who tags along.
Through the boy’s journey, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close tries to link the personal with the universal, connecting one story of grief within the larger context of a wounded-but-resilient city. (Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour accomplished this in one breathtaking montage, but still.) Yet the film is like a monument that calls attention to its own magnificent architecture—at one point, a “Black” actually cradles one of Horn’s letters to her breast like a newborn babe. Rather than dilute the sap, director Stephen Daldry slathers on Alexandre Desplat’s prodding score—he did the same with Philip Glass in The Hours—and makes a motif out of a body falling from one of the Twin Towers. It’s all very tasteful, he presumes.