Thomas Horn, discovered on a Jeopardy! teen tournament, has to carry the picture, and he’s not really an actor—more of an intelligent reciter. Fortunately, Oskar is an overintellectualizer, lacking in affect. When he finds a key in an envelope in his father’s closet bearing the word “Black,” Oskar decides to visit every “Black” in the New York phone book. The parade of Blacks—young and old, of many races and dispositions—is fairly tedious, but Chris Menges’s cinematography gives every neighborhood its own character. Best of all, the boy is accompanied in later visits by a mute, elderly man known as the Renter, a guest in the apartment of Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell).
The Renter’s muteness is accounted for at length in Foer’s book, but here it’s just a given and would be terribly precious (he communicates by writing on pads, except for “Yes” and No,” which are tattooed on his palms) if he weren’t played by Max von Sydow. There’s a bit of Chaplin in his walk and Stan Laurel in his weary shrugs, but Von Sydow makes this man his own: an irreducible mixture of chastened father and lost child. The other actors aren’t as lucky—they have dialogue—but Hanks makes you miss him when he’s gone, and Bullock gets a good final scene when she lets Oskar know that he has never been as alone as he thought. But the question hangs: Does this artificial, three-hankie scenario justify its 9/11 appropriations? Dry your eyes and decide for yourself.
Cameron Crowe is a romantic bordering on utopian, and his authentic family values—biological and surrogate—shine through in his enchanting We Bought a Zoo, loosely adapted from Benjamin Mee’s memoir. “We” is Matt Damon, in shock from the death of his wife, and his two kids, who move into a house with a foundering menagerie and a staff including Scarlett Johansson as the head keeper. The movie is formulaic (money crises, runaway snakes, a villainous inspector), but the grief-whimsy continuum that Daldry labors so hard to trace in Extremely Loud comes easily to Crowe. The score by Jónsi—twinkly, with elegiac underpinnings—gives the animals a supernatural vibe, and Damon and Colin Ford as his teen son have an affecting hesitancy, their hearts hovering between the living and the dead.