I regret to say that, for me, Stephen Daldry‘s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Warner Bros., 12.25) doesn’t work as well as it should, although many with whom I saw it on December 8th leapt to their feet when it ended, clapping and whoo-whooing. I was impressed and touched by aspects of this melancholy 9/11 tale — particularly by a third-act scene between 12 year-old Thomas Horn, who plays the lead, and a supporting character played by Jeffrey Wright — but too often I felt unengaged and at times perplexed.

Thomas Horn, Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

My main problem was with the urgent, often hyper manner that Horn uses (i.e., has been told to emphasize) in his portrayal of Oskar Schell, a brilliant, precocious youngster with borderline Asperger’s Syndrome. There, I’ve said it — and I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m just passing along what I felt as I watched.

The story is about Oskar’s attempt to come to terms with the 9/11 death of his jeweler father (Tom Hanks) by finding the owner of a key he’s found among his dad’s belongings — an effort that takes Oskar, whose off-balance condition makes him feel challenged and threatened by aspects of urban life, almost everywhere within the five boroughs of New York City.

But with Hanks and Sandra Bullock, as Oskar’s emotionally shell-shocked mom, relegated to a few brief parenting scenes (and maybe one or two as man and wife), Extremely Loud is almost entirely about Oskar’s world, and that, I have to say, is an excitable, agitated place I wanted to escape from. The kid has a personality like a nail being hammered into wood, and it’s not long before you’re saying “later” and “lemme outta here.”

I’ve had a chance to read a draft of Eric Roth‘s screenplay, which was adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer‘s 2005 book of the same name. Roth’s script works better than Daldry’s film because you don’t have to listen to Horn while reading, and in the film you obviously do as this is not The Artist.

The character with the most screen time besides Oskar is a Man With No Name Who Doesn’t Speak and Communicates With Crib Notes, played by Max Von Sydow. Oskar meets Von Sydow when he visits his grandmother’s place across the alley from the apartment he shares with Bullock (and had shared with Hanks before his death), and is told by the elderly man that he’s a “renter.” Right off the bat you know there’s more to him than that.

So to repeat, the first 75% or 80% of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was a problem for me because of Oskar’s personality. But the Wright scene is by far the best in the film. I loved it especially because it’s one of the very few in which Horn isn’t beating people to death with his Oskar-isms. It’s so welcome when calm and inquisitive Wright settles Oskar and the whole movie down with exquisite conveyances of what and who his character is — his humanity, his sensitivity, his ordinary-ness, his decency.

I’ve never read Foer’s book but let’s presume that Roth’s adaptation does a sublime job of conveying it and perhaps kicking it up a notch or two. Plus all the flashbacks and the layering and the ins and outs. It was apparently quite a task, and it seems like a commendable achievement given the requirement Roth had to fulfill. And the third act brings it all together in a way that solves…well, most of the issues and which feels emotionally complete, for the most part.

Von Sydow delivers a poignant performance, but I didn’t feel it was as brilliant or slam-dunky as early viewers had described it.

There are several plot and character-explanation questions that didn’t come together for me, but which i’m not going to raise at this time. I don’t want to be the spoiler so let’s just hold off for now. In fact, I’m going to stop this review here and now and leave well enough alone. There’s plenty of time to get into my Part 2 nitpicks.

Incidentally: In his 12.18 review, Variety‘s Peter Debruge writes that EL&IC director Stephen Daldry and producer Scott Rudin “were both in Gotham on the day of the [9/11] attacks.” Actually, they weren’t — they were both in London working on The Hours. I double-checked this earlier today with a Rudin p.r. rep.