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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' opens up 9/11 wounds without merit

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

(PG-13)

1/2 out of 4 stars

At first glance, the clunky titled "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is a life-affirming drama set in New York City that centers on a child trying to cope with the death of his father in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

For the first 30 minutes or so, director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours," "Billy Elliot") and the generally reliable screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump," "The Good Shepherd") step lightly and seem to be lacking an agenda. Without being obvious they remind us of what life was like on the last normal day (Sept. 10, 2001) most of us will ever know. Then it all heads downhill at light-speed.

Screened for the press back in early December, "ELIC" is one of the most shameless and inferior major-studio, awards-season releases ever made. Apart from the prologue it gets everything wrong on so many levels and does so in a suspect and reprehensible manner.

Not only does it rip open the still-not-healed wounds of 9/11, it does it through the eyes of a child a great many people will find to be not only patently unlikeable, but also one that can only be found living within the framework of a movie that exists solely for the purpose of garnering industry accolades.

Let's ignore the content of the film for a moment and focus on the film's most egregious bait-and-switch. The names of Oskar winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock appear above the title on the movie's poster -- one that looks like a cross between "Home Alone" and the Edvard Munch painting "The Scream." If you're a fan of either Hanks or Bullock and want to see the movie solely for that reason, please note: They share exactly one scene and together are on-screen for roughly 30 minutes total in a film that's well over two hours long.

Bait & Switch No. 2: the movie spends two hours leading us down a path -- much like those found in "Nancy Drew" and "Hardy Boys" piffles -- that might qualify as the most blatant plot McGuffin in history. Don't worry, there is an ending and closure is provided, but it comes courtesy of the tiniest of sub-plot threads barely touched on near the beginning and rarely revisited. The bulk of the story is an overly convoluted wild goose chase.

Thomas Horn -- the child actor who plays Oskar, the son of the Hanks and Bullock characters -- had no previous acting experience and got the gig after Daldry watched him clean up on a kid's championship edition of "Jeopardy!"

With blue orbs the size of baseballs and a voice that makes him sound more like a 20-year-old woman with perfect diction, the pre-teen Horn is called on to play the 9-year-old Oskar as a socially awkward, frequently abrasive know-it-all and for the most part, he nails it. Oskar also comes with a cavalcade of annoying tics, phobias and OCD traits and nothing that endears him to the audience.

Perhaps the capper is the doormat insensitivity Oskar shows toward almost everybody, but in particular to his mother Linda (Bullock). Blind to the fact that she too is going through her own mourning, Oskar chastises Linda for sleeping too much and he regularly lies to her. In his most callous act, Oskar replaces the family answering machine containing his father's final messages to him and Linda on 9/11 without ever playing them for her.

It's possible -- and completely understandable -- to chalk up Oskar's behavior as some sort of twisted survivor's guilt but as we're shown in flashbacks, he's never cared for his mother who has shown him nothing but nurturing love and encouragement.

The sole glimmer of positivity emulating from "ELIC" is the literally muted performance from Max Von Sydow playing a mysterious man known only as the Renter. For reasons we figure out almost immediately, the Renter takes Oskar under his wing and volunteers to help him on his pointless quest and true to form, Oskar browbeats and challenges him at every turn.

"ELIC" is not the first movie to deal with 9/11 and certainly won't be last, but thus far it is easily the worst. Not only is it guilty of poor storytelling and emotional manipulation of the worst kind, it takes what is likely the most horrific event any of us have ever known and makes angry about it all over again. (Warner Bros.)