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12/22/2011 09:38 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

Movie review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I keep want to referring to Stephen Daldry's film of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as, instead, ..& Incredibly Cute.

That's unfair. It's not even true; well, not completely.

Still, the performance by young Jeopardy champion Thomas Horn as the central character of this movie does feel like outtakes from a sit-com about an intelligent but socially maladroit youngster. He's too smart for his own good but naive enough to say inappropriate things and not realize they're funny. He may even have Asperger syndrome. Isn't that adorable?

Oh, and his beloved father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Isn't that tragic?

"Precious" is the word that kept bobbing to the top of my consciousness as I watched ELIC. Too precious. While there is emotional weight to be lifted here, Daldry and writer Eric Roth remove any sense of heaviness by taking it too far in the opposite direction - or by leaning so hard on the big emotional moments that they can't bear the weight.

Horn plays Oskar, a socially maladroit kid in New York whose father (Tom Hanks) creates mystery quests to draw Oskar out of his shell. But then his father dies in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 - and a year later, Oskar is still not over the shock.

Then he knocks over a vase in his father's closet - and discovers a mysterious little key inside. Is this a clue in his father's mystery quest for Oskar? Oskar thinks so and heads out to traverse the five boroughs by himself (even though he's only 9) to find the lock to which the key goes.

He finds a name written on the back of the envelope in which he found the key - and decides that this is a clue from his father. But the name is a common one - Black - and so Oskar makes it his mission to track down every single Black in the New York phone book to see if he or she recognizes this key.

As the saying goes, it's about the journey, not the destination - particularly when you're an oddball kid who carries around a tambourine to bolster your own confidence. But Horn is not enough of an actor - or, perhaps, too much of an actor - to seem like anything other than a kid acting instead of just being.

Sure, you know we're building to the big breakdown scene where one of the central characters spills a horrible secret (or two) that's been eating at him since that tragic day. And, of course, that secret will, in retrospect, seem completely understandable and more than forgivable. And yet this is what has propelled the plot of this movie: that, and the notion that being forced to do something for himself - as in, track down the lock for a found key - will help the troubled boy deal with his troubles.

But everyone is a little too sensitive for his or her own good here. And Daldry can't have it both ways: At one point, Max von Sydow shows up in a wordless role as the guy who rents the spare room in Oscar's grandmother's apartment. Before long, he and Oscar are pals, bouncing around New York in search of clues to the mysterious key.

In the end, however, the Renter - whose inability to speak confers an unearned saintliness on the character - suddenly reveals his true colors. And that poetic silence now becomes a symbol of the character's inability and unwillingness to communicate with the rest of the world. Get it?

There are any number of similar markers that announce Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as a (self-proclaimed) important and noteworthy movie. But it never lives up to its own promises of significance or emotional release.

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