Review in a Hurry: Tom Hanks mugs irritatingly as a dorky dad for a few minutes, then dies in the World Trade Center on 9-11. His kid, who may or may not have Asperger's (in a cop-out kind of way, we're told that tests were inconclusive), spends the whole rest of the movie trying to cope. In part this is achieved by searching for the origin of a mysterious key, but mostly it involves talking, talking, talking...which rapidly becomes tiresome.
The Bigger Picture: Prior to his death, the overly whimsical Thomas Schell (Hanks) was fond of making up quests and scavenger hunts that would send 9-year-old Oskar (young Jeopardy! champion Thomas Horn) on walks around New York City that would force him to socially interact with others. Following 9-11, which Oskar keeps calling "The Worst Day," a key is found hidden inside an envelope in a vase in Thomas' closet.
The name "Black" is written on the envelope, so of course Oskar does what any kid like him would—he gets a phone book and goes to visit every single person in New York City named Black. Oh wait...no real kid would ever actually do that. (You may be wondering how his mom, played by Sandra Bullock, would let him get away with such a task. The movie addresses this eventually, but not well.)
Along the way, Oskar enlists the unlikely help of his grandmother's mute tenant (Max von Sydow, who is great as always) and inadvertently winds up assisting others, like Viola Davis' Abby Black, through their own grief issues. We should note that Oskar has a fear of the subway, and almost everything else—he was neurotic before, but 9-11 cranked it up to, well, 11.
But never fear, Oskar will work through his anxieties. Verbally. Via voice-over, and incessantly onscreen (as he's paired with a mute, we have few options). If he were your son, you'd be glad to see him slowly get it together. But you're not getting paid to babysit here; you're paying to watch someone else's self-therapy.
It isn't really spoiling to say that, as in Hugo, the quest for the meaning of the object is a bit of a red herring, and the resultant human interactions the real point. But Hugo had automatons and classic sci-fi and 3D and Sacha Baron Cohen. This has 9-11, goofy shoulder-shrugging as a key plot point and a pushy motormouthed moppet. Which sounds like the better tale to you?
The 180—a Second Opinion: When Jeffrey Wright finally shows up, his scene with Oskar is so good that it feels like a whole new movie has begun. It hasn't, of course, and the lameness returns before the end credits roll.