Solidly crafted, impeccably acted and self-important in the way that Oscar loves, Extremely Loud is also incredibly close to exploitation. That'll happen when 9/11 is your driving plot point, as it is in this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's controversial 2005 novel (Foer was hammered by John Updike and The New York Times for piggybacking on a global tragedy). A decade after the 2001 event, memories are still raw among the more than 3,000 children whose parents died in the attacks. Eleven-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a lonely but gifted child who may have Asperger's, is still reeling from the World Trade Center death of his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), a jeweler Oskar draws falling from the towers and then rising upward. Oskar has hidden the phone machine, on which his father left six messages, from the eyes of his lawyer mother, Linda (a quietly vivid Sandra Bullock). The troubled boy finds a way to deal with his grief when he breaks a blue vase in his father's closet and finds an envelope with a key inside. The envelope is marked "Black." So Oskar – knowing his dad's penchant for games – sets out across New York's five boroughs to find all 472 people named Black in the book and dig for an answer.
This is delicate territory, and director Stephen Daldry, a three-time Oscar nominee, for Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader, treads carefully. Screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider) wisely eliminates many of the book's annoying, flip-book eccentricities to focus on the life of Oskar's questing mind. As he embarks on his crusade to achieve one more connection with his father, Oskar bangs on a tambourine like that other musical Oskar in Günter Grass' The Tin Drum. The film is rife with fancy literary references – J.D. Salinger is another – to indicate something important is being said. On his journey, Oskar intersects with many characters, including Stan the doorman (John Goodman) and a divorcing couple (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, both terrific), all seen through the prism of a boy who remembers his father as a beloved playmate (making Hanks ideal casting) and his mother as outside their magic circle. When depression overcomes Oskar, he tells us (in voice-over that won't quit) that he's wearing "heavy boots. "Oskar emerges from his shell for his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) and even more so to the Renter (Max von Sydow), the mute tenant she shelters. The Renter has a "Yes" written on one hand and a "No" on the other, a device that gave me that "heavy boots" feeling. No matter. Von Sydow is splendidly restrained and moving. Still, the film rests on the small shoulders of Horn, a winner of Jeopardy! Kids Week with no acting experience. Horn bears the burden manfully, even though the film that surrounds him is burdened by a borrowed profundity that disturbs for all the wrong reasons.