Director Stephen Daldry’s new movie is called, for reasons not immediately clear, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” The story concerns the attempt by an eccentric 10-year-old, Oscar Schell, to accommodate himself to the death of his beloved father, who died in the World Trade Center attack.
Dad (Tom Hanks) liked to keep Oscar (Thomas Horn) in contact with the world by giving him “reconnaissance expeditions” to mount, sham Natural History inquiries which would force him to speak with people and which would engage his intellect. One of these began at a swing set in New York City’s Central Park, near where the family lived.
When Dad died (having left a series of answering machine messages behind him), little Oscar is aware that his sense of closeness with his father is about to slip away. The kid searches Pop’s closet and finds a vase containing an envelope (on which is printed the word “Black”). Inside the envelope is a key which Oscar decides to try to find the corresponding lock. This will be their last reconnaissance expedition.
Oscar decides “Black” must refer to a person, so he sets out to visit all the people named “Black” in town and to ask them if they know the lock for which the key was made. Two things complicate this long-term undertaking. One is that the socially inept Oscar won’t travel on public transport, so the time taken walking to, say, Queens cuts down the number of visits he can make in a day.
And then he discovers that his mute grandfather (Max von Sydow) is secretly living temporarily in Oscar’s grandmother’s apartment, right across an alley from the place where the kid lives with him mother (Sandra Bullock). The minimally communicative gramps wants to go along on the Black visits, until he loses faith and, as has been his life-long habit, runs off.
But Oscar doesn’t stop looking because he has a newspaper clipping in the text of which his father had circled the words “notstop looking.” Then the kid unfolds the clipping and discovers this wasn’t what Dad circled at all. He was circling a phone number on the back of the page. A call to the number leads Oscar to the lock he has been seeking. Not that the prize behind the locked door is his. Nevertheless, the kid confesses something to the right Black, who, oddly, forgives him.
About this time Mother makes her own confession, one that will probably please city dwellers more than it did me. She has to explain, in one way of looking at it, how she made sure Oscar wasn’t harmed by any of the Blacks he went to visit. As a small town Kansan, I hadn’t figured any protection of her sort was needed. All the kid was doing was knocking on doors and asking a question or two.
If the story were left there, audiences would feel as if the kid had accomplished nothing which would help him adjust to his father’s death. So the movie shifts over and suddenly solves the conundrum of the park swings reconnaissance expedition. By ending both inquires at nearly the same time, the movie suggests it has resolved its central conflict. Never mind that the conflict seemed to be the thing about the key. That one can’t be satisfactorily resolved.
There are at least two popular ways to see the world. One says the journey of life is its own reward. The other assumes we have problems to overcome. The former group, the relativists, are uncomfortable with straight stories because they always contain a resolution, and resolution is not, according to these folks, available or desirable. But audiences hate movies without plots. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” solves this problem by giving us the resolvable park swing business early and late while spending most of its time teaching Oscar that…what? What does Oscar learn from the business about the key?
Nothing. And that’s a problem for this beautifully developed but internally vacant story.