The cover of the new movie tie-in paperback edition of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is rather cluttered and a little difficult to read, and so are some of the pages that follow.
The movie, however, is extremely clear and often incredibly moving. Freed from Foer's po-mo trappings, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) finds the shattered heart and reconstructed soul in the story of a boy's search for meaning in the death of his beloved father on Sept. 11, 2001.
So yes, it's about that. But not just about that.
The story revolves around the bright and precocious Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), raised in a Manhattan culture of intellect and privilege, who finds a key in a vase stored away in the closet where his father (Tom Hanks) hung his clothing. It's in an envelope with the word "Black" written on it, and Oskar — also the name of the mordant lad in The Tin Drum — concludes that it unlocks something his father wanted him to find. So he sets out to contact every person named "Black" in the five boroughs.
He does discover where the key belongs, but this is really a story of the mysteries of human experience that he unlocks along the way. He touches a panoply of New Yorkers, and for a while, he's joined by an old man (a majestic Max von Sydow) who hasn't spoken in more than half a century. Whether any of these people will lead him to an answer is supposed to be a surprise, but you don't cast Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright as one Mr. and Mrs. Black just to use them for cameos.
Rife with metaphors, most of them organic, Daldry's drama offers an invigorating tour of lived-in New York, and true to its title, he uses close-up and sound to fine effect. Sandra Bullock is unusually poignant as Oskar's mother, and Horn, a newcomer, is attentive, watchful, courageous — the most promising child actor of recent years.
Foer's story, smartly adapted by Eric Roth, has too many endings, and some of it strains credibility even as metaphor. This is especially so because its message is simple, and immutably profound: In times of tragedy, people come together, even if it takes them a while to realize that they must. Sorry, that's it. But it's also enough at a time when it seems like everything is slowly falling down.