When Jonathan Safran Foer’s sophomore novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, was released in 2005, it elicited a mixed critical response. Some considered it to be a moving and heartbreaking tale; others, including the influential New York Times, found it had "moments of shattering emotion" but overall, was "contrived and haphazard". One infamously negative reviewer went so far as to title his piece, "Extremely Cloying & Incredibly False’’.

That debate is set to be reignited with the release of Stephen Daldry’s screen adaptation of Safran Foer’s tale. This is the story of Oskar (Thomas Horn), a sensitive and curious nine-year-old whose life falls apart when his father (Tom Hanks) dies in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Oskar had been particularly close to his father, who fuelled his imagination with fantastic tales and Quixotic scavenger hunts. Since that fateful September day, the boy has become even more withdrawn, notably from his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock). Not only has Oskar lost his adventurous companion, he is the only person to have heard his father’s desperate phone calls home from the Towers.

While examining his late father’s closet one day, Oskar happens upon a key marked with the name, 'Black'. Given his dad’s penchant for riddles and adventures, the boy immediately assumes this to be a sign that his father wants him to embark on one last mission. Armed with the addresses of all 417 Blacks in the New York phone book, Oskar sets out to trawl the five boroughs to discover the identity of the keyholder and reveal what exists behind the fateful lock.

In Safran Foer’s novel, the story unfolds through a series of narrators, including the boy’s grandparents, who themselves had experienced tragedy in Dresden in 1945. The novel also uses letters, photographs and post-its to further the tale. In Daldry’s film, the story unfolds almost exclusively through the eyes of the boy himself. The father exists in flashback sequences while the mother is a fleeting presence, so the strongest adult in his life is his grandfather (Max von Sydow) a kind mute who accompanies Oskar on part of his odyssey.

Your enjoyment of the film will depend on how deeply you believe the story and care about the characters. While there are one or two moving sequences, overall the film feels contrived. It tries too hard to be sentimental without investing the necessary emotional heart. This isn’t helped by Hanks’ character being a virtual saint and Bullock’s character being so thinly-drawn. Only the great Von Sydow emerges with any credit and he is responsible for both of the film’s stars.

File under 'Extremely Long & Incredibly Cloying'.

Michael Doherty