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With: Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Zoe Caldwell, John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Hazelle Goodman
Written by: Eric Roth, based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language
Running Time: 120
Date: 12/25/2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Key to the City

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has one of the worst coming attractions trailers I've ever seen. From the looks of it, the movie is totally unchecked, sentimentality run rampant, like a cute puppy rushing around at top speed giving wet kisses. Digging a little further, we find that the director is Stephen Daldry, a man that has been inexplicably nominated three times for the Best Director Oscar (for Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader). Worse, the screenwriter is Eric Roth, who specializes in goopy, sentimental -- and very long -- movies like Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He, too, is an expert at landing Oscar nominations, pleasing Oscar voters with movies that seem tasteful without risking anything at all.

But the most wonderful thing about movies is that anything can happen, and so it's a huge, warm surprise that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is quite touching in a good way. It's not a masterpiece, mind you, and I'm not calling for any new Oscar nominations here, but it's worth seeing and might brighten up a wintry afternoon a bit.

Nine year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) lives in New York City, circa the autumn of 2001. That's a perfect way to get Oscar nominations, by the way, is to set your movie in and around the 9/11 attacks. Oskar is a smart, imaginative, but timid kid, and his unbelievably amazing dad (Tom Hanks) encourages all this. Unfortunately, dad is killed in the World Trade Center, leaving Oskar and his mom (Sandra Bullock) on their own. Oskar finds a key in his father's closet, and sets out on a quest to find out what it fits. His only clue is the last name "Black," of which there are hundreds in the Five Boroughs.

On his quest, he meets lots of character actors, and finds himself more closely connected to the city. But things get really good when he enlists the aid of a mysterious, meaty old man (Max Von Sydow), who does not speak; he has "yes" and "no" stamped on his right and left hands, and otherwise scribbles notes on a pad. Von Sydow does remarkable things with his eyes and hands, and also manages to rein in some of the movie's sentimentality. Oskar gets the bulk of the movie's dialogue -- adapted from the book by the clever Jonathan Safran Foer -- and the young actor Horn does a fine job of balancing its playfulness with a sense of humanity.

In retrospect, the movie can't help but feel calculated, like a collection of ingredients assembled to win hearts and awards. But while watching, it has some undeniably powerful moments, such as the scene in which Oskar describes and plays his father's final answering machine messages left. Or the lonely, quiet, late-night scene in which he finally does meet the owner of the key. In short, I approached Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with my heart firmly closed, but the movie delicately pried it back open again. For that it deserves a measure of admiration.

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