The inexplicably popular Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close proves, in a way that few movies have, the danger of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.  At first glance, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same novel seems insufferably postmodern (or “po-mo,” if you will).  Foer switches between two first-person narrators (nine-year-old Oskar Schell and his grandfather, a survivor of the Dresden bombings), changing the style to mimic each character’s disparate thought processes; he throws in pictures and hand-drawn diagrams; he even creates several dense text collages when his heroes get extremely unmoored.

But the literary gamble works.  Foer is addressing the fractured psyche of people who have lost loved ones in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.  The writing should be fragmented and different and extreme and experimental because these characters have to carve out a new way of speaking—of thinking—in this new and terrifying post-9/11 world.

The movie, on the other hand?  The smoothest, most lucid 9/11 tragedy you’ll ever see.  Forget United 93 or World Trade Center; you can watch this one with your grandmother, and this ease lies at the heart of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s problems.  While one can make a straightforward story about 9/11 (hell, both United 93 or World Trade Center fit that particular bill), this story doesn’t benefit from the de-wrinkling.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Director Stephen Daldry has forged a career from making the unpalatable palatable.  He turned the harsh realities of a dying British coal town into musical-comedy with Billy Elliot; he made AIDS and repressed homosexuality less icky in The Hours; he even used The Reader to give readers the sexiest, most appealing Nazi femme since Ilsa of the S.S.  The man can make a movie—all of these, including Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, are watchable and professionally crafted—but he hasn’t yet demonstrated the patience to face—unblinkingly—thorny subject matter.

His softening especially cripples Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because the book is so off-kilter.  The main conceit in the novel doesn’t work if you take it seriously.  We are dealing with a nine-year-old (I believe he’s eleven in the movie) who wanders all over New York’s five boroughs looking for information on his dead father.  That he would complete his journey physically unscathed is already deeply implausible; that his mother, however deep in grief as she may be, would condone Oskar’s travels is downright unbelievable.  But you accepted it in the novel because of the style; Foer’s narrative flights suggested that a lot of Oskar’s quest might be occurring in his head and nowhere else.

Working with the great DP Chris Menges, Daldry helps establish a world of tactile plausibility.  The images are so crisp you can smell the air, feel the brick, and this realism buts up awkwardly against the fantastical elements.  We just don’t buy it; we need more fantasy to help the story go down.  Curious, too, that a film stuffed with great actors (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Viola Davis, Zoe Caldwell, Jeffrey Wright, and newcomer Thomas Horn, whose movie debut as Oskar would have been quite impressive were Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth not so insistent on giving him copious voiceover explaining things that didn’t need explanations) rings so flat on the performance front.

There’s a plodding sameness to the people Oskar meets that while emotionally honest—one year after 9/11, why would any New Yorker feel “normal”?—doesn’t elevate their encounters to great drama.  They meet Oskar, are sad, and then disappear unceremoniously.  This goes double for von Sydow’s “Renter,” who somehow won an Academy Award nomination for…flashing “No” and “Yes” tattoos on his hands with a dejected look in his eye?  Really?

Only Hanks, as Oskar’s father, offers anything other than rote despair.  His good humor and gentle charm galvanize Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; when he dies, the movie—like Oskar—never quite recovers.

What power Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close manages comes directly from that still-open 9/11 wound.  It’s impossible to feel nothing at Daldry’s chilling recreations of Manhattan on that Tuesday morning: we listen to Hanks call his family from Tower One, we see a shocked Bullock watching the Towers burn from her office across the city, and we are moved.  I’m still unsure if these moments exploit 9/11 suffering or not, but they work all the same.  At its best, when Oskar is trying to make such horror fit into his narrow worldview, the film gets at some of the raw pain in Foer’s novel, but then the moment passes, and the Oscar Prestige soothes everything over.  Sleep tight, and no bad dreams.

I might have problems with the movie, but the Blu-ray’s A/V quality is peerless.  Chris Menges’ cinematography is always a treat (even if it’s tonally misguided), and the HD transfer shows off the image’s rich colors and deep textures.  The disc also comes with an immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that highlights the picture’s layered soundscape.

Supplements are sadly indicative of Warner’s work (so far) on its non-classic catalog Blu-rays: well produced but middling.  We get four short featurettes: Making Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Finding Oskar (which centers on Horn), Max von Sydow: Dialogues with the Renter (which centers on, you guessed it, von Sydow), and Ten Years Later (a documentary about an actual 9/11 victim that is the best of the four featurettes).  That’s it.

Like the film itself, the bonuses don’t impress. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close needed more inspiration and experimentation, and what it got was Stephen Daldry’s sober-minded and safe interpretation.  Here’s a fact: ten years later, when we’re still discussing 9/11, we will have forgotten Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack streets on March 27th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: The Plodding Tragedy of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE