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(2011) (Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock) (PG-13)

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Drama: A boy searches New York City for a lock that matches the key he believes his father -- who died in the attacks of 9/11 -- purposefully left for him.
A year after the attacks of 9/11, 9-year-old Oskar Schell (THOMAS HORN) is obviously still affected by the passing of his jeweler father, Thomas (TOM HANKS), in one of the World Trade Center towers. Oskar and his mom, Linda (SANDRA BULLOCK), still live in New York City, across from the building where the boy's grandmother lives, and Oskar greatly misses the adventurous games his dad used to create for him.

While looking through his father's things, he finds several items that pique his interest. One is a newspaper clipping with the words "nonstop looking" circled. The other is a key inside an envelope with the word "Black" written on that.

Believing all of that is one big clue left for him by his father, and thinking Black is a pivotal person's last name, Oskar sets out to ask everyone in the city with that name if they have the lock that matches the key and/or any idea what his dad wanted him to find.

He's not alone in his quest, however, as he's soon joined by an old and mute man, The Renter (MAX VON SYDOW), who has a room in his grandmother's apartment. As the two set out to meet every Black in the city, such as Abby Black (VIOLA DAVIS), Oskar hopes he'll figure out the answers behind his father's great last mystery.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Ask anyone who's lost a loved one and they'll tell you that letting go of the deceased's belongings is one of the hardest things to do. Those can range from clothing and other such personal affects to items related to the person's favorite hobbies and activities. A particularly difficult one to jettison is the person's voice on the outgoing message on their phone's answering machine. It's almost as if hitting "delete" is having them depart all over again.

For the young protagonist in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," it's not the outgoing message but rather a series of incoming ones that were left by his father right before his passing. No one else has ever heard the messages, and they torment the kid, especially since they came from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, the film focuses on young Oskar (a terrific Thomas Horn who makes his feature film debut in a moving performance) not being obsessed so much with those now hidden incoming messages, but rather on a key he believes his father purposefully left him. You see, the dad (Tom Hanks seen in a number of flashbacks) had a knack for stirring his boy's imagination and inquisitiveness, and the kid thinks the key and finding the lock it fits into (and whatever might lie behind that) is his father's last great challenge for him.

Having not read the book but having seen the trailers for the film, I expected this to be an emotionally devastating flick. And it will be for some or even many, particularly if the death of a parent still haunts them and especially if they lost someone in the attacks of 9/11. Don't get me wrong -- the film does have its powerful moments that got to me. It's just that the way director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot," "The Hours") has fashioned this tale greatly diminished the wallop I imagined it was going to deliver.

Working from Eric Roth's screenplay adaptation of the source work, Daldry has the film jump around through time from the present to various moments in the past, both before and on the day of the terrorist attacks. While some viewers may appreciate the temporal leaps breaking up the building moments of emotion from piling too high, I found that it actually lessened their impact too much, thus leaving me (and perhaps others) at arm's length rather than fully embraced by what's unfolding.

Where the film did work much better for me, however, was with one specific element of the boy's quest to find the lock and figure out the answer to his dad's last playful mystery challenge. I won't give away the revelation -- although I will say those looking for a clean, tidy and pat resolution might not appreciate how things play out -- and there's little doubt that this will be one of those "it's the journey and not the destination" type of thematic works.

And that element would be the boy's interaction with the nebulous figure who rents a room from his grandmother who lives in the building across the way. While it won't take long for most viewers to figure out who he really is, the performance by Max Von Sydow -- as a man who's taken a vow of silence and either writes out his thoughts and answers on paper or uses "yes" and "no" inked on his palms) -- is spot on.

In fact, the film feels somewhat rambling and lost (purposefully or not) until Von Sydow shows up and the unlikely duo set off on their quest to find the lock. The chemistry between the old screen veteran and his young rookie counterpart is wonderful and really gives the film a great deal of its heart. So does Sandra Bullock as the boy's widowed mom who's trying not to lose her son as well, and there are decent emotional moments between the two of them as well. Supporting performances from the likes of Viola Davis and Jeremy Wright, among others, are also solid.

Overall, the film is decent, but I kept expecting it to be something more emotionally engaging and powerful and perhaps a tad less manipulative. I certainly didn't come away as devastated as I did after watching the similarly 9/11 related "United 93." To be fair, however, those are two vastly different flicks and the Paul Greengrass one was released far closer to the actual events than this flick that arrives more than a decade later.

Having checked sites that provide summary compilation of other reviewers, however, I see I'm not in the minority regarding my reaction to the film. Perhaps we all went in with expectations -- based on the subject matter, the film's trailers, and the track record of the director -- that simply couldn't be met. Whatever the case, and mostly likely from the film's temporal structure, I came away never feeling as engaged as I felt I should have been. For that reason, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" only rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 9, 2011 / Posted January 20, 2012

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