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'Incredibly Close': Mapping A Life, After A Loss

<strong>What Falls Away:</strong> After the Sept. 11 attacks, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) mourns his father (Tom Hanks), who died at the World Trade Center.
Francois Duhamel
Warner Brother Pictures
What Falls Away: After the Sept. 11 attacks, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) mourns his father (Tom Hanks), who died at the World Trade Center.

Lauded as a wunderkind for his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer was mostly pilloried for his second, a heavily semiotic saga of a family struggling to regroup after losing a member in the Sept. 11 attacks. "Cutesy" and "overstuffed" cropped up frequently in reviews of the novel, and some early notices for a new movie, adapted from the novel by Eric Roth and directed by Stephen Daldry, have complained of kitsch.

Yet what many interpreted as a severe case of whimsy in a book clearly meant for adults translates into a dark but warm and captivating movie for kids. Intentionally or not, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has all the ingredients of a child's fable: It's an action adventure edged with grief for a loss so terrible, only signs and portents will serve to comprehend and contain it.

Admittedly, the enchantment is more Grimm than Disney. New York City and its environs appear as a fairyland filled with beauty and danger. The story's boy hero, Oskar Schell (an astutely directed Thomas Horn), is an elf-child who fully claims his lonely, odd and obsessive ways. Tests for Asperger's syndrome were "inconclusive," he announces cheerily to a total stranger.

But Oskar desperately misses his father (Tom Hanks), a jeweler and scientist manque who died in the World Trade Center. And though Oskar is much loved, the world that formerly kept him safe has shut down, rather like the mythical sixth borough of New York, which, according to his father, broke off and floated away.

His mother (a very good Sandra Bullock) sits in their apartment, apparently immobilized by sorrow. He chats with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) across the street through a walkie-talkie; she, meanwhile, has acquired a mysterious tenant (Max von Sydow) who never speaks but hunches his shoulders in a familiar way that Oskar can't quite place.

All of which serves to intensify a guilty secret — about which we learn in flashbacks to happier days destroyed by that one awful day — and which makes Oskar feel like a betrayer. Being his inventive father's son, he generates a host of maps, symbols, drawings and talismans to guide him on an odyssey around Greater Manhattan, abetted by the mystery tenant and a large cast of quirky New York residents whose last name is Black (a clumsy metaphor, made worse by the fact that two key figures are African-American). The goal: to find a lock that will fit a key Oskar stumbled on in his father's closet.

Oskar's mom, Linda (Sandra Bullock), grieves for her husband and struggles to adjust to her new role as a single parent.
Francois Duhamel / Warner Brothers Pictures
Warner Brothers Pictures
Oskar's mom, Linda (Sandra Bullock), grieves for her husband and struggles to adjust to her new role as a single parent.

Ten years after Sept. 11, it may still be too soon or too hard to parse that terrible day or its legacy in fiction without mawkishness or a dogged repetition of its most graphic images in a way that borders on pornography.

And indeed, every now and then Daldry, who also directed Billy Elliot, The Hours and the misguided The Reader, lapses into the bathetic or the portentous. Trying to explain himself to the elderly stranger, Oskar shows him photos of a man falling from the twin towers, a man who may or may not be his father. Like the stranger, one cringes.

Yet for the most part, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close unfolds as a tough-minded but tender tale of suffering, confusion and redemption for children old enough to remember or know about the attack on the twin towers. Scored like a gently sorrowful thriller by the ubiquitous composer Alexandre Desplat, the movie is gorgeously shot by the great Chris Menges with palpable love for the less touristy corners of New York.

Inevitably, Oskar's quest must double as a process of letting go — among other things, it replicates the treasure hunts his father mapped out to get the boy talking to people. Grown-ups may find the ending a touch pat and sentimental, and personally I found the many twists and turns of Oskar's journey a little wearying after an hour.

But the film moved me, and it held my teenager's attention for the duration — which may indicate a second life for Foer's novel, on the Young Adult shelf. (Recommended)

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.