A movie called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close practically begs critics to mimic its title. Predictably, reviewers have taken the bait, and the results — "extremely annoying" and "incredibly mawkish"; "unbearably cute" and "deeply contrived" — aren't exactly kind. The film, which comes out on Christmas Day, is based on Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed novel about a young boy named Oskar (played by Thomas Horn, the precocious winner of the 2010 Jeopardy! Kids Week tournament) whose father died in the 9/11 attacks. When Oskar discovers a mysterious key in an envelope, he becomes convinced that it's one final puzzle left by his father, and explores New York City in an attempt to locate the matching lock. Directed by three-time Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and co-starring Oscar-winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, the film was expected to be a major awards contender, but has been largely snubbed so far. The Village Voice even labels it "Oscar-trolling 9/11 kitsch." Is the film really that much of a misfire?
It's emotionally manipulative in the worst way: The film is "a cloying exercise in sentimentality," says David Germain for the Associated Press. Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, who adapted Foer's complex novel, fabricate a "bizarrely contrived alternate reality" in which all elements fall into place to create a "perfect cleansing ritual for a Sept. 11 Manhattan family in mourning." But the story fails because it is so far removed from the real world and our genuine emotions. When characters predictably work through their pain after encountering Oskar on his journey, it should be "sweet and life-affirming." Instead, "it feels so extremely soppy and incredibly phony."
"Review: Extremely Loud is incredibly phony"
But Horn's performance is terrific: Extremely Loud is dangerously close to becoming "unbearably cute," says Mary Pols at TIME. Thankfully, a strong, nuanced performance saves it. "Dodging the twin minefields of preciousness and an exploitative 9/11 premise, Horn races away with the movie and makes it believably, genuinely sad." The young actor has the arduous task of playing a potentially grating child who may have Asperger's syndrome. But "the sheer force of his emotions" creates a "devastating" performance that salvages the "weepfest."
"Brace yourselves for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Actually, this is an "exceptional film": Try "extremely well done… and incredibly effective," says Laremy Legel at Film.com. Considering its subject matter, the film obviously risks tilting "awkwardly towards sentimentality." But thanks to fine acting, pacing, and sensitivity, it provokes "greater depths of introspection." Horrific imagery and moments of loss are "punctuated and overcome" by even greater displays of strength and love. That makes this the rare movie "that matters."
"Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close shines"
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