Films based on novels are somewhat tricky to review, especially if you are well acquainted with the original material.
Like I said in my review for “,” I generally try to stay away from comparison and do my best to focus just on what’s on the screen. I couldn’t do that with “Tattoo” because the Swedish film was too engrained in my mind and, unfortunately, I can’t do so with “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel.
You see, I love Foer’s inventive novel about a precocious 9-year-old named Oskar Schell. The characters are so unique and well-drawn and all written with Foer’s poetic, whimsical prose. I’ll try and banish the book-to-film comparison to the end, but I feel the need to state from the top that this is a review from an impartial viewer.
OK. “Loud” is a modern parable set in post-9/11 Manhattan. On that fateful day 10 years ago, a loving father and jeweler named Thomas Schell went to the World Trade Center for a meeting. He never came home.
But this isn’t a film about Thomas, played by America’s favorite everyman Tom Hanks, nor is it really a film about 9/11. At it’s heart, “Loud” is a character study, a look in the mind of Thomas’ son Oskar.
Always a smart and eccentric child, his father’s death turned up the volume of Oskar’s many phobias and peculiarities. He’s afraid of everything from public transportation to bad teeth. He travels with a rucksack filled with notebooks, Fig Newtons and a tambourine, which he shakes methodically to calm his nerves.
One day, Oskar finds a blue vase in his dad’s closet. Inside is an envelope with the word “Black” on it and inside that is a key. Before Thomas’ death, he liked to plan “reconnaissance missions,” elaborate treasure hunts meant to stimulate his son intellectually and get him interacting with people outside his family. Upon seeing the key, Oskar instinctually thinks it’s a clue from beyond the grave and goes on a citywide adventure to find the lock it fits.
From Brooklyn to Queens, Oskar travels the city and knocks on the door of every person named Black. Aiding him in his search is The Renter (Max von Sydow), a mute old man with sad eyes who rents a room from Oskar’s kind grandmother (Zoe Caldwell).
Oskar is played by Thomas Horn, a newcomer whose only other on-camera experience was as a contestant of “Jeopardy.” His performance is astonishingly multi-layered and complex, especially from a cinematic newbie. Even as the story zigs and zags from schmaltzy sentimentality to raw drama to moments of understated humor, Horn’s performance pulls everything together and gives the movie a center.
A particular scene between Horn and Viola Davis, as Abby Black, is beautifully and subtly acted. In most performances, it seems that what’s unsaid is just as important as the lines in the script. That is especially true with Sandra Bullock’s take on Oskar’s mother and Max von Sydow’s touching silent performance.
Adaptation Misses the Mark
Despite Horn, the story of Oskar’s search never quite feels comfortable on screen, perhaps in part due to the 9/11 material. In the novel, Oskar’s story is interwoven with two other first-person narratives, that of his grandmother and grandfather. Both survived the bombing of Dresden as teenagers and then were reunited in New York where they got married.
In the film, that entire subplot was cut (except for an brief explanation by The Renter). The loss of the Dresden storyline makes this story one about 9/11, where the novel was more about universal loss.
As a tale of 9/11, “Loud” doesn’t have much new material to bring to the table and can feel downright manipulative at times. It’s difficult for a film about such a sensitive subject to be earnest and unpretentious. “Loud” tries but has one too many sappy moments, one too many contrivances to succeed.
It’s also an uneasy story to adapt for the screen because, well, there’s not much plot in the first place. Oskar’s story is all about getting inside his head, which on the page is done through quirky stream of consciousness narration.
The actual search is more of a plot device, a MacGuffin to explore this rich character. I won’t spoil it here, but my point is supported by the “big reveal,” of who and what the key belongs to. The journey is much more important than the destination.
Stripped of Oskar’s inner-monologue, Daldry and writer Eric Roth seem to be confused by how exactly to tell this shaggy dog tale and simultaneously fast forward aspects of Foer’s story and over explain others that are better left unspoken.
Despite its best efforts from Daldry and the cast, “Loud” just doesn’t quite work as a film. It’s a bit like adapting poetry. But if you look past the implausibilities or 9/11 sentimentality, the theme is strong and important.
Whether it be a terrorist attack, Nazi invasion or even a terminal diagnosis, everyone experiences loss. There is no simple fix for that kind of grief, no easy answers. But you can move forward with your family, or the family you create for yourself, behind you. For in the end, Oskar’s father is still dead, but he has hundreds of new friends named Black.
What I'd See This Week
- Some adventure – “”
- Something fun - ""
- Something for just about everyone — ""
- For the family — "Beauty & The Beast 3D"
The film is playing at in Middletown. See here for showtimes.