The story eventually gets around to answering that, although not skillfully. That is a shame because it undercuts the quietly luminous work done by Sandra Bullock as Oskar's grieving mother. Her son clearly was much closer to his father, and now Linda Schell is struggling to support her distant, damaged, secretive son while trudging through the ruins of her life. The movie assumes real gravity in Bullock's scenes.
Unfortunately, they aren't numerous. Instead, we get brief views of Oskar's interactions with the cross-section of New Yorkers names Black, who conveniently consist of all races and classes, though mainly benign attitudes. But as the first, Abby Black, Viola Davis is the most striking, caught by Oskar on a day when her husband William (Jeff rey Wright) is literally walking out the door.
On paper, there is some appeal to a boy wondering the city - even carrying a tambourine and gas mask - and meeting a cross-section of people. On screen, well, the word would be prosaic. The search becomes repetitive, distancing, leading away from Oskar's father and the central tragedy while shedding light on nothing.
For a time, Oskar finds an ally in the silent, elderly lodger taken in by his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). The man, known to Oskar only as "The Renter," survived the firebombing of Dresden when he was young. Unlike Kurt Vonnegut, he apparently was traumatized into silence. Mercifully, the movie does not push the connection between that horror and 9/11. Thankfully, Max von Sydow makes the character a lively presence instead of an artificial construct.
For that matter, first-time actor Thomas Horn does as well as possible with Oskar, a twitchy character one can understand, even sympathize with, but who would not be anyone's first choice for a non-stop narrator. A juvenile "Jeopardy" winner and a top contender in spelling bees, Horn gives a natural performance in a trying role.
So there are things to like here, especially the return of William Black for a late scene of remarkable delicacy, empathy and even beauty.
Unfortunately, the rest of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" seldom approaches that level of achievement.