Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock
Directed by: Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”)
Written by: Eric Roth (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”)

With 9/11 brooding at the center of its emotionally manipulative core, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” displays about as much modesty regarding the 2001 tragedy as Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. Simply put: it’s an exploitative sham.

While the self-important drama would like to do for September 11 what a film like 1997’s “Life is Beautiful” (“La vita è bella”) did for the Holocaust by telling a whimsical and heartfelt story within the framework of an unimaginably painful time in history, it doesn’t have nearly enough charm to pull it off. Its lack of quality storytelling and characterization begins and ends with acting newcomer Thomas Horn as the film’s main character Oskar Schell. Metaphorically and pretentiously speaking, the boy’s last name could refer to the hard outer covering of the personality he must break through to let others in. Sigh.

Oskar, who just might be one of the most posturing characters in cinematic history, is unlike any other brainy 9-year-old kid usually seen in the locker room with his underwear pulled over his head. Not only is he an amateur entomologist, Francophile, pacifist, and undiagnosed autistic — his idea of fun is going on fact-finding expeditions through the New York City his father (Tom Hanks) creates for him. When his father dies in the World Trade Center attacks, Oskar is convinced a mysterious key he discovers is a clue left behind for his next journey.

Ignore the fact that Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) allows him to walk around NYC unsupervised or that actually coming across a lock the key will fit is highly improbable; what is most problematic about the screenplay is the rambunctious and grating nature of Oskar himself and the phony relationships he creates along the way, including one with his estranged mute grandfather (Max von Sydow).

Despite the exaggerated melodrama, what works best in the film are the few moments director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) allows a child’s perspective to be the window through which the audience watches the events of September 11 unfold. Hanks, too, is memorable when he’s not on screen. The voice messages he leaves on an answering machine on what Oskar calls “the worst day” are chilling, to say the least.

Beyond that, however, “Extremely Loud” is meaningless. As much as it wants to affect, connect, and heal, there’s only so much fiction you can attach to 9/11 before it feels like just another sob story. If the Academy made a glaring gaffe with this year’s nominations, it was in calling this sentimental drivel one of the best films of the year. In fact, this is a forced tearjerker that can’t wrap up soon enough.

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