Director Stephen Daldry and producer Scott Rudin could have taken one of two routes in casting the precocious Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old at the center of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Find a young actor with a genius for playing smart or seek out a young genius with a knack for acting. Turns out the filmmakers, who previously collaborated on such literary Oscar magnets as “The Reader” and “The Hours,” opted for what would appear to be by far the riskier (and more intriguing) bet by offering the role to a first-time actor, Thomas Horn, a twelve-year-old best known for his winning run, last October, on “Jeopardy!”
The role of Oskar requires a particularly complex balancing act in order to capture such a singularly earnest and sophisticated character — a vegan, pacifist, Francophile, tambourinist traveling the five boroughs in search of the lock that fits the key he found after his father died in the World Trade Center catastrophe. The book’s narrative unfolds, mostly in epistolary form, from Oskar’s point-of-view and that of his now divorced paternal grandparents (to be played in the film by Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock) whose lives were similarly scarred by the bombings in Dresden.
Foer, something of a prodigy himself, is a master at exposing the world in all its complexity and horror as seen through the quizzical and compassionate eyes of young avatars who are simultaneously smart and pre-cynical. Fulfilling that promise will be a tall order for young Thomas Horn. But perhaps his lack of experience playing to the camera will work to his (and our) advantage.
It’ll be interesting to see how this adaptation stacks up to the big-screen version of Foer’s celebrated first novel, Everything is Illuminated. Directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood as the solemn innocent who travels the Ukrainian countryside in search of the woman who saved his grandmother from Nazis, the film polarized critics, who found it alternately charming and faithful or coy and unsubstantial. Despite the similarities between the two books, this project has all the makings of a Big Oscar Movie, given all the hood ornaments Hanks, Bullock, Rudin, and Daldry have collected over the years. Anyone else getting excited to see what this all-star (plus Jeopardy champ) team does with Safran’s mini-masterpiece?