Kid Jeopardy! champ Thomas Horn carries the drama as best as he can, playing Oskar Schell, the 9-year-old only child of a jeweler (Tom Hanks) and his cubicle wife (Sandra Bullock). Oskar has Asperger syndrome, or close enough, so his father keeps him entertained and engaged with all sorts of elaborate games and activities, the most recent being finding evidence of New York City’s fabled sixth borough.
A year after Mr. Schell dies in 9/11, leaping from the second tower, Oskar finds a key amid his father’s belongings in a closet, and assumes it must unlock a mother lode of a mystery. The only clue is the word – name? — on its envelope: “Black.” Wearing the key around his neck, the boy packs a journal, camera, gas mask, Fig Newtons and tambourine (don’t ask), and sets out into the wild kingdom of the Big Apple to interview every person with the last name of Black.
Yes, all 400-some-odd of them. Without a chaperone (for the most part). This child who’s so shaken by the outside world that he sometimes stands in the middle of busy streets.
The movie attempts to explain this away in the end, but it’s a total cheat, an insult to every viewer, as cloying as the very premise. Director Stephen Daldrey (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) usually exhibits better taste than this, not to mention restraint. But nearly every shot and scene are rendered with such preciousness — and utter dishonesty for a story emerging from an earth-shaking event — it feels as if cast and crew were writing their acceptance speeches in their heads.
Horn isn’t to blame; although he’s not terrific, having the protagonist be autistic actually helps mask his deficiencies as an actor. Speaking of, Hanks turns in what is arguably his worst work, but then again, I haven’t seen Larry Crowne. This is not a performance; it’s a mulligan.
And this film is not recommended, even out of curiosity. —Rod Lott