Your ability to deal with this movie will mostly hinge on your reaction to its star. Not Tom Hanks. No, not Sandra Bullock, either. They're here, of course, but they're supporting players, not the main event. That's Thomas Horn, the 13-year-old first-time actor discovered on Jeopardy's Kids Week. This is a young man who, in real life, not only cleaned up on a smartypants game show, he also studies Mandarin in his spare time. So it's not such a leap to see him playing Oskar, an intelligent, obsessive boy searching for a reason why his father (Hanks) died in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
The Asperger's tests were "inconclusive" according to the script, but the nonstop machine gun of questions that is Oskar, as he travels New York's boroughs pestering people in search of the lock that fits a key his father left behind, is proof that his mind doesn't work in quite the same way as other children. He's hyper-verbal and he narrates the entire film to the point of exhaustion. You won't even need to spend time being bothered by the lingering questions about whether or not it's still too soon for mainstream Hollywood movies to tackle 9/11. Horn's endless barrage of explanations and interrogations might send you out of the theater screaming after 15 minutes. If children could be adjusted like blenders, he'd be Harriet The Spy set on "pulverize."
You'd also be forgiven for pre-hating all of it prior to experiencing a single minute, especially if you know how Jonathan Safran Foer's novel ends (without going into detail, it courts the scorn of people tempted to flip straight to the back of a book before they even start reading it). And if you were one of the unlucky people to stumble into and then out of Remember Me, the Robert Pattinson-starring exploitation film that infuriatingly uses 9/11 as a final act trick, a "gotcha" moment no movie could recover from, you're exempt from further torment, no questions asked.
But director Stephen Daldry is a relatively tasteful man. He isn't shy about overt emotional manipulation, yet he likes to keep it neat. So this isn't the horror show of grief porn it could have been. It wants you to cry. And you might, particularly when Sandra Bullock, as the boy's grieving mother, reveals her own secrets in the final act. You don't have to be in the mood for catharsis. It may just find you.
For the less willing, it'll be a tough sit. Ten years isn't a long time. Twenty years might not be either. In fact, for a lot of people, a 9/11-themed film might always feel like it's arrived at the wrong moment. And why, oh why, besides the pursuit of Academy Awards, must this sort of thing be released on Christmas Day? Who wants a gift-wrapped box full of sadness?