Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a troubled boy, stricken with a set of social disorders (never defined in the film but readily apparent) that only get worse when he experiences “the worst day ever.” His father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), was in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and died in the building’s collapse. The loss leaves Oskar struggling to make sense of his life while his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), drifts further and further away into depression. A year after the tragedy, while snooping around in his father’s possessions, Oskar discovers a mysterious key labeled, “Black.” Feeling that his connection to his father is slipping away, Oskar postulates that the key must be a part of one of the numerous adventures his father sent him on. With the help of a mysterious mute (Max Von Sydow) who rents a room from his grandmother, Oskar begins a cross-city search for the owner of the key who he believes will be able to tell him something about his father.
The story contained within EL&IC is truly spectacular. It is equal parts beauty and heartbreak, a haunting and yet triumphant narrative that should draw a natural connection from its audience. Obviously the 9/11 overtones make up a portion of the emotion within the film but the real value is found in Oskar’s struggle to remain in touch with his father and as a byproduct the distance from his mother. Make no mistake, at times this story is gut-wrenchingly painful and difficult to endure but at the core of the sorrow there remains hope, a combination that elicited quite a response from me. When describing the narrative to a friend I got choked up and nearly broke down, an action that isn’t typical for me (I’m a movie crier, sure, but I’m usually done with it after the movie is over). I realized how deeply the story had affected me after the fact, so to speak, and that’s what makes this such a frustrating movie: while the narrative is fantastic, virtually everything else about this movie is a bloody mess.
Okay, to be fair, the acting of the supporting players isn’t a mess. Hanks is charming as always in his limited screen time and as the film goes on, Bullock’s character displays more depth than originally expected. Von Sydow, too, makes every second of his wordless appearance count, a performance worthy of his Oscar nomination. All of them, however, are overshadowed by Oskar and I don’t mean that in a good way. Oskar is, quite simply, a beating for the majority of the film. The fault does not belong with Horn, a young actor who does an excellent job with what he was given to work with. The problem is that director Stephen Daldry makes Oskar excruciatingly annoying in order to illustrate his various ticks and issues. At times you want to ignore all the stuff this kid has been through and just tell him to shut up. Actually, it’s not “at times”; it’s almost all the time. Oskar grated on my nerves and Daldry’s insistence on playing up his idiosyncrasies essentially strips this film of its rightful impact. Add in a HORRIBLE, painful voiceover that never seems to stop, a distracting and obnoxious score, and a few truly bizarre production choices (a man falling from the WTC building in disturbing detail, for example) and what you’ve got is a sloppy, haphazard mess of a film that undercuts the power of the narrative.