Puzzling emotions

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Grief is a puzzle, right?

Grief is a puzzle, right?

Rated 2.0

Adapted from the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close evokes the recent literary wave of self-conscious precocity that probably began with Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Such titles, stacking up adjectives and adverbs like fortress walls, have a common angle on grappling with grief: the will to outsmart it. Foer’s grief was the national trauma of 9/11, and he made a bet that pathos—or at least a bravura intellectual exercise—could be wrung from an earnest effort to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Well, nothing says self-conscious precocity like a literary, puzzle-solving boy. Here we meet Oskar Schell, a socially inept preteen enthusiast of the urban scavenger hunts organized by his father, a Manhattan jeweler of European Jewish extraction, to foster the boy’s innate intelligence and draw him out. When Dad dies in the Trade Center attacks, leaving behind a key in an envelope with only the word Black written on it, Oskar defaults to their established routine, methodically tracking down and interrogating the hundreds of New Yorkers whose last name is Black. Did his father leave him a last message?

Several, actually, on the answering machine that terrible morning. But those are beyond unsatisfying. They’re unbearable. In fact, Oskar won’t even let his mother hear or know about them. Instead he sticks to his mission, as recorded in a busy system of maps and file cards and calculations and industriously elaborate scrapbooks, not to mention the invasive questions he fires off at strangers. Also, he carries a tambourine around and regularly jiggles it in order to calm himself.

In short, Oskar has one of those tic-constellation personalities that work much better in prose, where they’re safe under the insulating abstraction of reader imagination, than in movies. I mean, unless we’re talking Wes Anderson movies, where the insulation is an operational sense of humor, and the warp of image-amplified literalism is exactly the ironic and melancholic idea. Alas, it is not Wes Anderson we have to thank for the movie of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but rather the quirk-neutralizing team of screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry, respectively the men responsible for Forrest Gump and The Reader.

Here, it’s supposed to be a joke that Oskar’s Asperger’s syndrome test was inconclusive. From his unrelenting obnoxiousness, we may at least infer that he’s not so good on empathy. But the movie asks for patience only to try it. Must every stage of grief accommodate being a brat? That so many people tolerate Oskar’s rude impatience seems like a delusional fantasy of New Yorkers’ resiliency, and therefore a disservice to it, as is the solidarity so belabored by the literary conceit of his community-connecting quest.

We’ve gone long enough here without mentioning that Oskar’s parents are played by Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, if only to do them a favor. In this case, when you trade ethnic specificity for an affable (and bankable) common touch, it should come as no surprise that what you get is unsubtle Hollywood mush. Oskar is played, in his acting debut, by Thomas Horn, freshly plucked from success on the “Kids Week” edition of Jeopardy! His smarts and stamina accord with the Foer mandate, just as his diminutive yet clobbering presence suits his tediously sensible screenwriter and director. Including John Goodman as Oskar’s doorman, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright as a fragile couple at the center of his odyssey, and Max Von Sydow as a mysterious mute helper who communicates only via Moleskine notebook, it is no pleasure to report that the casting is good for the movie this is.

For its occasional strenuous efforts at cinematic lyricism, arguably the signature image of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a weary Von Sydow dozing on a New York City bus, suddenly awakened by the straw of the kid’s juice box shoved in his mouth. In other words, an icon of European film dignity is left adrift in American public transit and facially violated by an effusion of prefabricated sweetness. No, the world is not the same as it once was.

In retrospect, maybe the adverbial overstatement of the book’s title was a warning. We know films can’t be novels; they shouldn’t be greeting cards either.