EVERY AWARDS season has them - ambitious, star-studded adaptations of tricky postmodern literature.
Adaptations that don't quite work.
A few years ago, it was "Atonement." I'd also nominate "The Hours" or "The Reader," both of which were brought to screen by Stephen Daldry, who's at it again in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
This year he's taken on Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 novel, with an Oscar-vetted cast that includes Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis, not to mention Jeffrey Wright and Max Von Sydow.
They're all fine, but no one can do much about the movie's nettlesome problem - this is a story invented to exist in a book, and you can feel it resisting the jump to screen.
The sticking point is the central character, Oskar (Thomas Horn), a boy who's lost his father (Tom Hanks) in the 9/11 attacks, and now lives uneasily with his mother (Sandra Bullock).
In the book, Foer created an interior voice for the child that the reader intuitively understands is a blend of a child's thoughts and a writer's skill.
Transcribed to a screenplay, and spouted from the mouth of the boy, even as a stream-of-consciousness voice-over, he starts to feel like some hyper-scripted kid who walked off the set of a Nickelodeon show.
All of this puts even more pressure on a story that struggles to find a comfortable place between whimsical fable and 9/11 grief treatise. Oskar believes his late father has left clues to a mystery whose resolution will somehow help him understand his great loss.
The boy follows the clues all over New York, sometimes with the help of an elderly neighbor (Von Sydow). The people he meets (Davis, Wright) turn out to be part of a different mystery - how anyone learns to accept that life goes on, sometimes without the people we love.
In restrained moments, the movie works, and no wonder, with this cast. Even young Horn is as good as he could possibly be. He's in virtually every scene, giving an antic, "on" performance in a movie that runs way over two hours.
Given strict rules governing how much time children spend on set, you wonder if it was all strictly legal.
You also wonder if Foer's larger point, linking 9/11 to the bloody march of human history (the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, pops up as an analogue) is adequate to the task of addressing 9/11.
Dresden was an ancient city caught in the crosshairs of a modern, industrial world war. The Trade Center attack was a religious fanatic's staged, demented massacre, tailored for the media age, an assault on symbols of the modern and secular. I don't know that they have a lot in common.