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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Post-Sept. 11 film pulls off eccentric, small-scale redemption

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Opens Jan. 20

What does it say about the data-crunching, low-sociability demands of our age when two radically different movies present us with the same kind of hero(ine): a precocious, obsessive, epicene urchin, prone to self-soothing tics and mutilations, on a mission to plumb her/his native country’s dark history and systematically untangle the mess irrational people leave behind? The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has her piercings and computer, but Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) has too many fine motor skills for something as crass as a laptop. He’s a papercraft hacker, transforming marbled notebooks into handsome pop-up scrapbooks and presenting strangers with a business card as delicately wrought as the McSweeney’s splash page, introducing himself as amateur inventor, Francophile, entomologist, and pacifist.

The cards are Oskar’s dad’s inspiration, a means to get his phobic son to get out and talk to people while gathering data on a snipe hunt: Decades ago, he tells his son, New York had a sixth borough, a bridge-and-tunnel Atlantis that disappeared. Can he uncover the evidence? (The father, doughy and avuncular, is played by Tom Hanks, and his appearance prompted a collective softening of the audience’s tight shoulders. In that most beloved actor we see the best of our own dads, back when we were small and tickle-able and his attention was like gold.) He tells Oskar the best kinds of fibs, the kinds that inspire hope and play and mystery. Then one September morning the answering machine records the last of his father’s many benevolent lies: “Something big has happened downtown but I want you to know I’m OK.”

The Too Soon? clock is still ticking, and while our eyes may be clear enough of ash to scoff at jingoistic spectacle (Oliver Stone’s forgettable World Trade Center) or face our trauma (Flight 93) and its military consequences (Stop-Loss, The Hurt Locker), are we ready for small-scale stories of redemption in which the Towers smolder in the background? Is it of questionable taste to have Oskar scour the city on a new obsessive quest, to find the lock that fits a mysterious key left behind in his dad’s possessions, as if Harriet the Spy was scouring Kennedy Space Center for a missing kitten right after the Challenger disaster?

It’s not tasteless in this case, where redemption is found on two levels: because the redemption is found on two levels: one, Oskar pursuing emotional relief through problem-solving, and two, our return to the not-so-absurd idea of New York City, despite its gnashing frustrations, as an enchanted land of unexpected treasures. Oskar’s travels bring him not only in contact with a potpourri of characters from every borough, but reacquaint him with his well-meaning mother (Sandra Bullock) and the mysterious, mute renter (Max von Sydow) living in one small room at his grandmother’s place, who agrees to accompany him on some of his quest.

Oskar, with his endless font of Guinness Book-worthy trivia (first-time actor Horn was spotted by producers while winning big on Jeopardy! Kid’s Week, a forum that must have highlighted not only his clear-eyed good looks but the authoritative way he recounts facts to adults), insatiable curiosity, and eccentricities, belongs and thrives in New York, just like how every person he meets contributes to the city’s great patchwork of humanity—the real, invisible “Sixth Borough.” So what if Oskar must carry a tambourine everywhere because its jangle quells upsetting sights like people eating meat, ringing phones, tall buildings, and low-flying planes? (Okay, maybe the last two are not so irrational.) The renter has tattooed yes and no on the palms of his hands so he’ll never have to speak those words to anyone again. If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.

This movie is not for children, yet it’s filled with childhood’s pleasures and terrors: The Twin Towers watched over New York, and Oskar’s father watched over him. Now both are gone, and what now? We Are Never Truly Alone is a tired truism but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close strips it of its treacle and earns the lesson for Oskar by extending his cramped nature and finding the sweet spot of catharsis for us. Sept. 11’s losses are traumatic, but, as Oskar learns, not an occasion for exile from all that is good in this world. Even when skyscrapers crumble into dust, there are still buildings standing in our own private skyline.

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