Art & Culture

Based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, about a boy dealing with the loss of his father, this film, directed by Stephen Daldry, is either heartbreakingly wonderful, or annoyingly whimsical, depending on your point of view. I am not a fan.

Oskar is an unusual child. He is talented and precocious but doesn't mix with other children his age, and bangs a tambourine in order to help him manage some of the more difficult parts of life. He lives alone with his mother (Sandra Bullock) because his father (Tom Hanks) died in one of the skyscrapers in 9/11. And that's where we go 'oops', because that is an emotive subject, and locating a film anywhere in the vicinity of that subject is a risky business.

Oskar has a grandmother who lives across the way, and she has a lodger who no one ever sees, but turns out to be Max von Sydow. He never speaks, but has the word 'yes' on one hand, and 'no' on the other, which makes communication possible, but simple. Oskar has found a key in a vase he broke. The name 'Black' is attached to the key, and Oskar sets himself the task of finding out which of the hundreds of the people called Black in New York City it belongs to. It's his way of making sense of a meaningless universe and reclaiming his relationship with his father.

You may already know if this is the kind of film you're going to want to see. I did wonder, when I read the book, how you could make a movie from what Safran Foer wrote,  since it is a book which takes all manner of liberties with the printed page, and the narrative shoots all over the place. The answer, of course, is to simplify it. Strip out all the weird stuff, the drawings, the babble, the alternative narrators, and simply focus on Oskar. This certainly solves the problem of complexity, although it also reduces the scope of what we are being told/shown. The transposition to the screen also makes things more literal, and reduces the possibilities of an unreliable and unusual narrator. A voiceover is not the same thing as a book written by "I".

Daldry does a perfectly good job within these constraints. Hanks and Bullock are idealised parents, and there are some excellent performances by the likes of Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis, while von Sydow does wonders with his anvil of a face. Thomas Horn is especially good as Oskar, in a part which demands a great deal. But I never managed to make myself believe in what I was seeing. I felt distanced from the film by its very sentimental quirkiness. There are too many flashbacks of Hanks being the dad we all dreamed of, and the whole 9/11 thing bothers me. I can't help feeling that using certain historical events (like the Holocaust) is a way of giving a book/film extra emotional traction that is unearned and belongs to the people to whom it happened. It's not a terrible film, although I know some people found it overwhelmingly crass. But others like it. You'll just have to form your own opinion, but mine is a thumbs down.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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