Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the 11-year-old protagonist of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,’’ is a handful. Less for his parents than for an audience tasked with watching him whirl across seemingly every inch of the five boroughs. His father (Tom Hanks), a Noo Yawky jeweler, was inside one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 and left behind a key whose lock Oskar is determined to find. The key comes with a name (“Black’’), and so the boy dares to comb through every such person in the telephone book until he gets what he wants, rattling a pet tambourine and narrating-narrating-narrating the entire way.
It’s fair to absorb five minutes of this movie and want to wring yourself out, to object to the feeling that the director Stephen Daldry has recruited you for more than two hours of baby-sitting, that, after “Billy Elliot,’’ “The Hours,’’ and “The Reader,’’ Daldry has managed, once again, to keep a serious subject high-minded by dunking it in kaleidoscopic art. This time, you fear, it’s a juice-box tragedy. The whimsy threatens early to turn lethal. In the opening minutes, the film’s title breaks into paper - the paper - the office sheets that, for days, rained all over New York like woeful, corporate confetti. September 11 here is called “the Worst Day.’’ And then there is Oskar, who is whimsy to the infinite power. He wears his taekwondo robes to his father’s funeral; insults his widowed mother (Sandra Bullock); refuses, out of fear of another attack, to conduct his search via the subway (only power-walks for him); and has fond memories of his father’s fantastical assertion of a sixth borough.
The movie’s been adapted by Eric Roth from Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, which was exasperating in a way that’s distinct from Daldry’s ideas about directing. Foer’s preciousness can be savant-like - minutiae and grand digressions for the sake of impressing you with their author’s craftiness. Foer strained to create profundity from a child’s cleverness and an elderly couple’s pain. So the book suffered from both selective naivete and self-regard - it’s a kid, but, really, it’s me; they’re old, but that’s me too! The movie forgoes Foer’s ambitious tweeness and presents Oskar’s outbursts and moodiness - that precociousness - as a disorder.
The entire film is from Oskar’s point of view, and it’s not until a quarter of the way into his search that we receive confirmation that his breathless verbosity and heedless pluck constitute the plumage of Asperger’s syndrome. Before he explains his rudeness, his inability to take no for an answer, his obliviousness to the feelings of others, Oskar is a trial. The Asperger’s doesn’t make him less so. But it recalibrates your intolerance of him. He’s no longer just an obnoxious movie kid. He’s someone whose obnoxiousness and desperation - his very disorder - are crying out for order. The cuteness assumes a different urgency. His mission to find the lock for that key becomes both a way to connect to his father and to soothe his obsession-compulsion.
Horn bursts with passionate speech. This isn’t a child set loose on a set, determined to rule the proceedings with his kidness. This is an actor giving a performance, and the performance is close to great. Horn works hard. It’s work you see - the panting, the running, the precise way his eyes fill with wonder and panic and panicked wonder (what if I’m missing something? What if that something is amazing?). But it’s also work you feel, in mostly unpleasant senses. In very proper, vaguely schoolgirlish diction, Oskar is high-strung and uniquely annoying: He might grow up to be Amanda Plummer. But Horn doesn’t apologize for that. Neither does Daldry, whose filmmaking can be all apologies. It’s possible that he’s at his most believable with children. His best film is still “Billy Elliot,’’ which fought to find lyricism in the British coal miners’ strike. It’s also possible that Daldry makes his adults seem juvenile. To that end, Hanks and Bullock are very good with Horn. He indulges him. She watches over him. Grief and less emotional forces, perhaps, have done something to Bullock’s face. She looks here like a Wayne Thiebaud painting of Jill Clayburgh.
None of the Blacks Oskar meets appears equipped to help, but they all become part of the scrapbook he keeps. (Some of the Blacks - Jeffrey Wright and a teary Viola Davis - actually are black.) But what Daldry and Roth achieve with Oskar’s arts-and-crafts affectations becomes affecting. The movie doesn’t ask us to live in that scrapbook the way Foer more or less does. It doesn’t make us a part of, say, the diorama Oskar keeps in a closet in his bedroom, where he’s built a shrine around the answering machine which contains the increasingly doomed messages his father left that morning.
The movie meets his neurosis most of the way, setting his enumerations to grand montages edited by Claire Simpson: people eating meat, looking up at the sky, screaming, running, and so on. The cinematographer Chris Menges makes the camera an elegant extension of Oskar’s mania. It’s rarely still. The problem, of course, with watching a movie about a national disaster’s emotional fallout told from a child’s perspective is that you start to feel like a child, too, that something’s being kept from you, like the truth. So all the handsome shots that turn the city into a toyland and all the superb editing and vibrant art direction - all the formal tricks Daldry uses to whip you up and work you over - risk being too much. After 45 minutes, it can feel like junk on a sundae.
But the movie has a human coup. Across the way from Oskar’s, in the apartment of his German grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), lives an elderly man called the Renter. Oskar manages to recruit him on his journey, even though - or maybe because - he’s peculiar. The Renter communicates only with hand signs, penmanship, and the large, expressive face of Max von Sydow, whose tweed pants rise up close to his chest. He’s like a giant turtle. We know long before Oskar does who the Renter is in relation to everyone else; and in a handful of very moving scenes, much of the truth about suffering and guilt and resilience we feared we were being denied is right there in von Sydow’s face. The audience is old enough to understand the story it’s telling even if Oskar isn’t. Foer devotes a chunk of the novel to the Renter’s past. Von Sydow obviates the need to recapitulate it. There are no words - or beautiful montages - for this sort of wisdom.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.