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“Building a Mystery”

Grade: B (RENT IT)

IT’S BEEN A dark decade for America. Our economy crumbled in the terrifying, twin shadows cast by the events of September 11, 2001, or as it’s remembered in Stephen Daldry’s new drama, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” the “worst day.”  The film begins in the wake of that worst day as Oskar Schell, our 11-year-old protagonist and wunderkind, attends his father’s funeral alongside mother Linda (a muted Sandra Bullock in mournful beige).  The Schells are interring the empty casket of father Thomas (played by Tom Hanks in flashbacks) and, seated apart inside a limousine, strike us as not the closest mother and son.  “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is about the hard work of recovering that interpersonal closeness, of living loudly in the face of seemingly insurmountable loss.  A victim of the 9/11 attacks, Thomas leaves behind a key, and like Chekov’s gun, that key has to open something by the last act.  It comes with the cryptic word “Black,” and soon enough, with the names of 472 New York residents named Black, Oskar sets out to unlock the mystery.  Along the way he meets a fine supporting cast including Viola Davis (“The Help”), Jeffrey Wright (“The Ides of March”), and Max von Sydow (in an Oscar-nominated role as the speechless “Renter” and Oskar’s guardian angel).

In Oskar’s memories of his father, Thomas Schell towers over him like a demigod: a map-maker who builds puzzles for his prodigy son to solve, an intellectual who searches The New York Times each morning for grammatical typos, a jeweler who leaves behind the ultimate treasure-hunt (another cartographic conundrum involving a mythical “Sixth Borough”) for his son to solve.   Mr. Hanks remains one of cinema’s most likeable leading men, and buried, as he is here, by the rubble of Oskar’s grief, his warm presence radiates throughout.  The warmly-lit interior of the Schells’ Upper West Side apartment is a refuge from the senseless world outside and within it, father and son wage a war of oxymorons with Thomas shouting “Now then” and “Found missing” to little Oscar’s retort: “Jumbo shrimp!”

In adapting the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Insider”) retains much of the high jinks and gimmickry – close-ups of elephants tears, YES and NO written on palms, even the flip-book that concluded the novel and sent the image of a falling man back up into the World Trade Center – that divided readers of the novel, which delivered on David Foster Wallace’s call to construct postmodern narratives with an unironic heart.  Yet the most affecting scene of the film is its sparest: an angry Oskar, confounded by the senselessness of his dad’s death, tells Linda: “I wish it had been you.”  We’re not a little shocked when Linda doesn’t strike him but responds with “So do I.”  If only Roth had preserved the conclusion to Foer’s novel in which Oskar finally understands his mother’s own ordeal, telling us, on the page: “Her looking over me was a complicated as anything ever could be.  But it was also incredibly simple.  In my only life, she was my mom, and I was her son.”

And the page is where Foer’s Oskar Schell belongs because on screen, he comes across as petulant and not a little irritating.  As Oskar, newcomer Thomas Horn over-enunciates his lines and lacks the warm relatability that an actor like Hanks has in spades.  He comes across as that precocious little boy who sidles up to the adults table at family functions to show off his knowledge of Tolkien and trigonometry, the one whose mother has to politely ask him to play with the other children.  There’s a suggestion that Oskar suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, but it’s never developed and it’s a shame because his most puzzling behaviors, like hiding the answering machine on which his father left his final messages and replacing it with a new one to keep his mother in the dark, make no sense on the screen whereas the literary Oskar, as the novel’s narrator, is easier to sympathize with.

Foer’s novel wasn’t to everyone’s liking – described as “overextended and sentimentally watery,” it took a drubbing by the late great John Updike in a 2005 review in The New Yorker ­– but it’s naïve to think that a fictionalization involving September 11th survivors could ever please everyone.

It’s not, as many have alleged, that “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is exploitative.  Rather, it’s manipulative and especially so on screen, stripped of the pacifistic and political dimensions of Foer’s novel, which forced us to bring a brain and heart.  Daldry’s reductive take on that work asks only that we bring our Kleenex.