As it turns out, Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" does not make the best material for a movie.
Despite director Stephen Daldry's cautious, sensitive approach to what remains a raw wound for many in this area and around the globe, displaying the novel's contrivances on screen only provides more distance, not a greater depth of emotion or insight.
There is some fine work here, but it is often forced to the margins by the central narrative, a troubled boy seeking to find some connection to his dead father by embarking on what any adult in the audience will immediately recognize is a fruitless search around New York City.
While the movie tones down some of young Oskar's tics, he is still a borderline Asperger's syndrome sufferer who lives in Manhattan but is scared of the subway and buses and walks around shaking a tambourine. That last is ostensibly because it calms some of his many phobias, not because Foer is claiming "The Tin Drum" among his literary antecedents.
His jeweler father, a well-cast Tom Hanks, came up with inventive ways to help Oskar deal with his problems, sending him on quests for answers to made-up questions, providing excuses for him to get out and talk to many different people. There would not be much of a story if Oskar were as shy as his parents describe him. Here, he seems a motormouth, even with strangers.
But all that changes on the day that Schell takes a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. What is left of him are a harrowing series of messages on the answering machine, which begin chipper and reassuring but grow increasingly... other.
At moments like these, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" treads close to exploitation. But art can be a coping mechanism, and in confronting this shattering loss, even mediated through the recording, the story suggests it will attempt to provide solace.
It does, but what might work as literary conceit becomes off-putting in a more aggressive medium. Oskar may have had his difficulties before the great tragedy. Now he is the incessant narrator of his obsessive attempt to find the lock that will be opened by a key he discovered among his late father's possessions. And not a household key, one in an envelope with "Black" written on it. He resolves to visit, on foot, everyone named Black in New York City.
A child might well think this way, that the key is the clue to the next quest prepared by his father and that finding the lock will somehow unlock a message for him. Anyone else might immediately wonder where his mother is to allow him to embark on such a fool's errand.
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.