Dir. Stephen Daldry
(2011, PG-13, 129 min)

I read Jonathan Safran Foer‘s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close early last year, so this is one of the rare cases when I can watch a film and say, “The book was better.” I won’t say that, though, because actually the movie is better. Safran Foer is a writer of unmistakable skill, but also self-indulgence: pseudo-existentialism, purple prose, extravagant character histories. The novel was adapted into a screenplay by Eric Roth (Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), who streamlines the story, reducing it to its most workable elements, and mostly excises a parallel storyline that I think the book would have been better off without. The result is a more conventional narrative, but also a more compelling one. Less is more.

Thomas Horn makes his acting debut as Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old New York City boy whose father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He’s autistic, or on the borderline; he explains at one point that he was tested for Asperger’s but that the results weren’t conclusive. His condition comes through more clearly in film than it did on the page; the visual medium is better able to convey the sensory overload of a city like New York – hence the title – but although I have no personal experience with autism, it seemed to me that the film sometimes tries to have its cake and eat it to. The boy is just autistic enough to be precociously intelligent, but functional enough to have a curiously unsupervised adventure through the five boroughs. He speaks with maturity beyond his age and doesn’t seem to have difficulty communicating, even though he tells us briefly that he has trouble talking to people; well, he’s more outgoing than I am, and I’m pretty sure I’m not autistic.

Sandra Bullock, as Linda Schell

Horn’s performance is somewhat mannered, affected – I was always aware of him acting, and I think much of that can be attributed to the directing of Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Reader), who draws a very showy performance out of him where I think a subtler, internal characterization would have been more effective. The young actor has intensely emotional scenes that demonstrate obvious talent, but he needed a firmer hand on the reins. There’s an autistic character on TV’s Parenthood who is about the same age, and the performance by that young actor, Max Burkholder, is more natural and less ostentatious.

Though the lead character is somewhat problematic, the rest of the cast is spot-on, especially Sandra Bullock, whose relatively brief supporting turn as Oskar’s mother turns out to be the heart of the film; she is excellent here, as she was in Crash, Infamous, 28 Days, and even While You Were Sleeping. Why on Earth did the Academy honor her for The Blind Side and not one of her infinitely better performances? Viola Davis also has a small role in this film, as a woman Oskar seeks out for information about his father. She fleshes out so complete a character in her brief time – she can express a life’s experience with a look – that I’m baffled as to why she is so often squandered on roles as psychiatrists and social workers, whose only purpose is to listen to less interesting characters talk. Max von Sydow doesn’t say anything at all as a mute tenant who lives with his grandmother across the street; his role is greatly reduced from the novel, and he is dealt with rather abruptly in this screenplay, though von Sydow gives him depth and feeling.

The film is structured around 9/11 – “the Worst Day,” as Oskar calls it – circling the event until we get to the heart of his distress. The way it uses flashbacks and editing to explore a traumatic event reminded me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is a great film where this is merely a good one, but Extremely Loud is nevertheless gracefully assembled for strong effect. It has been accused of being manipulative, but I don’t think so, certainly no more than other sentimental films from the last year that mostly avoided such criticisms. I think a tougher, more direct approach to the protagonist could only have helped – to approach Oskar’s likely autism as more than a set of behavioral quirks – but Daldry is respectful with the subject matter and does not exploit it. Some films shamelessly tug on the heartstrings like a dog on a choke chain. For the most part, this one earns our feelings.