Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by Eric Roth
When it comes to sappy movies, for whatever reason there seems to be some taboo subject matters that are often called manipulative, or Oscar bait even. For the longest time the Holocaust was the front runner in this category, even with great films like Schindler’s List. With this film a new subject has arisen as manipulative Oscar bait: 9/11. There was certain buzz surrounding the film, and with my limited radar I may be naive in thinking it extends further than with just my movie crazed internet friends. But that buzz was mostly negative with regard to the film potentially using the subject of 9/11 as a manipulating factor to steal audiences and Oscar votes. I was always in staunch opposition to this theory and in fact was looking forward to further work from the director who brought us The Reader and the screenwriter who brought us Forrest Gump.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film is about a young boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the son of a jeweler (Tom Hanks). Oskar is a his father’s son, loving to pick his brain and participate in the little games he has devised for his son, like reconnaissance expedition. But one day, the “worst day”, Thomas Schell perished in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar struggles to accept why such a terrible thing should happen to his father. His mother (Sandra Bullock) attempts to explain to the young boy that sometimes in life things just don’t make sense, but this only angers Oskar more as he always has an explanation. So he sets out to find the secret behind a key he finds in his father’s closet, seeking the closure and explanation he so deeply needs.
When I heard the film was coming out, I was definitely intrigued by the story. I had heard from a friend that the book was quite good and yet the trailer seemed to mask just about all the mystery that is held within. With the cast involved and the magical mind of Eric Roth (who also wrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) behind the screenplay, there was certain to be high reaching themes and there certainly are. There is no denying that the story behind the film is the type I would typically fall in love with, which makes the final product that much more frustrating. I had so many mixed feelings exiting the theater as there was so much I liked about the film, but much more which I wanted to like but couldn’t because of one major problem right in the middle of the picture: Thomas Horn.
Every time there is a kid as the central actor in a film I am weary because while there are plenty of examples where the kid knocks it out of the park, there seem to be infinitely more examples of the crash and burn variety. I think Horn is more the latter here than the former, though part of that just has to do with his character. Oskar seems to be a spoiled little kid who likes to whine, and certainly that is a little too critical from my perspective, the kid lost his dad in 9/11. But at the same time I have no problem saying that the character and the performance were both annoying. I was never brought in to care for Oskar because of the way he was reacting to the circumstance of the story, which is a shame because the rest of the cast is pretty great all the way through.
The film features some great technical aspects, first and foremost the cinematography, which seems to emote the beauty of the story better than Horn is capable of. As I said, the themes running through this film are right up my ally. Things like everybody has a story and life doesn’t always make sense. I get it, and I like it, but it was the way in which it was presented, quite rambling and unfocused to be honest, which was a turn off for me. I think this is also an instance of the visual medium being detrimental to the story. The imagination is a wonderful thing, and I can imagine that the experience of reading the book would be much more rewarding for me personally than this adaptation. The story is about disappointment, and it does it so well that the film itself becomes a disappointment, though I don’t think it was intended that way.
**1/2 – Average