Twee is a desperation to retain one’s innocence. Snark is aggression over innocence lost. Both dominated the cultural landscape of the last decade, and both are what those who seek to be hip and fresh and authentic now react against. Part of the change is pragmatic: they’re stale, played out; part is the usual, cyclical rejection; part is that they are as stained as, and stained with, their contemporary, George W. Bush; part is genuine faith in “hope and change”; part is a call to action; and all of this is for another essay. Remind me. But twee, at least, has finally descended from its questionable vanguard to the cozy middlebrow; and one of its major works, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Sept. 11 novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, is now “safe” enough to be adapted by Eric (Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button, The Good Shepherd) Roth. Part of me admires Foer for his unrestrained romantic prose. But his wings often bat harder than the altitude they reach suggests, and in such moments, a cold thought crosses my mind: “People coping with tragedy do the darndest things!” The nine-year-old hero, Oskar, loses his father in the World Trade Center. He finds a key among his father’s effects, and travels across New York City trying to find the keyhole it unlocks and, hopefully, some profound answer to settle his grief. What makes the book twee is not the fact that it’s narrated—sometimes quite touchingly—by a child, but that this kid’s quest to discover that things aren’t so tidy and preordained actually is preordained, preposterously, by invisible hands. In other words, his innocence is secured—which makes Oskar a loaded stand-in to express our national tragedy.
Roth, on the other hand, has a tendency toward the kind of heaviness that begs recognition—the kind that pops Foer’s balloons of poetic whimsy, and grinds them down in the Hollywood prestige-picture mill. But under the supervision of the director, Stephen Daldry, these two disparate talents meet in the middle. The possibility that Oskar has Asperger’s has been brought to the fore; it shapes the film’s visual scheme, and permits the young actor who plays him (Thomas Horn) the sort of theatrical performance that would be ludicrous from an adult. I think we’re just far enough away from Sept. 11 now that EL&IC might be the first movie to use it as an historical event, rather than as topical fodder. This isn’t to say that all wounds have been healed—only that it takes up a different portion of our consciousness, which returns as a cold shudder at such times as when Hurricane Irene threatened to bring the City to its knees again a few months ago. We live with a different kind of helplessness now—with different causes. Maybe that’s why twee can’t hack it any longer. But it’s good to know that anodyne mass-audience craftsmanship still can, even if when it churns out beautiful performances such as Viola Davis’s cameo (which is more striking than all of The Help put together), it still feels as if they’re being churned out.
The most egregious example of this is the fact that Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock—nobody’s idea of typical Upper West Side residents—have been cast as Oskar’s parents. But there’s an extra layer to Hanks’s casting that may have been accidental. If one movie star could capture the happy-go-lucky, self-satisfied but self-possessed but self-mocking zeitgeist of the ’90s, it would be him. He was like a down-home avatar of what we liked most in ourselves when he was in his prime. So seeing him perish in that awful blaze marks a tragic milestone indeed.