The first thing is, the accusations that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is exploitative 9/11 porn, while true, miss the point. That particular bed had already been shat in by the horrendous 2005 source novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which leaves only the argument that, well then, maybe they shouldn't have made the book into a movie. Also true, and also missing the point, because they did. To be fair, the film is a lot better than the book, or at least (and this is close enough to the same thing), more tolerable than the book. This is at least partially because Foer does, in fact, have ideas and talent and a keen sense of inventive formalism, which he persistently used in the worst imaginable way in his sophomore novel, making it not just irritating, but irritating in a splashy, gimmicky way. The film's screenwriter, Eric Roth, is a hack of the first order, whose chief and only gimmick is to turn everything he touches into Forrest Gump; thus does the script never really have a chance to delve into anything as luminously misjudged as the book, except sometimes when Roth takes Foer's suffocatingly fussy prose and uses it, intact, for the main character's constant voiceover. Because of course there's fucking voiceover.

At any rate, calling EL&IC 9/11 porn is well and good: and the film opens on its absolute worst gesture in that direction, as a man falling from the World Trade Center that day, as we will soon enough gather if we can't guess from the start, is framed by director Stephen Daldry rather uncomfortably like the title character in the opening shots of the filmmaker's debut feature, Billy Elliot, which was, as you may have forgotten, not about people jumping to their deaths following a terrorist attack, and using the whole slow-motion, falling-in-space, context-free thing to open this movie is easily the most nauseating decision Daldry and crew make along the way; but on the whole, it's no more obnoxious than it might be, and it at least skips out on ending with the same wildly tacky gesture that the book did. Besides, what EL&IC does to 9/11 isn't half as misjudged as what Daldry's last film, The Reader, did to the Holocaust, so I vote for taking what little restraint and refinement we can get when we get it.

So, the movie tells us of a 10-ish-year-old boy, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, discovered during Kids Week on Jeopardy), whose father died on what he insistently refers to as "the worst day". Now, in life, Thomas Schell (played in the copious flashbacks by Tom Hanks) was a wonderfully happy sort of father who tried to encourage his maybe-autistic son to go out and experience the world by means of all sorts of elaborate scavenger hunts. When, a year after the attacks, Oskar finally gins up the courage to go inside his father's long-abandoned closet, he stumbles across a key in a ceramic jar, with the word "BLACK" written on the envelope, and concludes that he has just taken the first step into his father's last game; in short order, he is off on a journey through the five boroughs of New York to find everyone with the surname Black, and ask if they knew his father or the key, in the process revealing the unity of a city still recovering from its greatest modern trauma, and reveling in its great cross-section of humanity.

That's the idea, anyway. In practice, EL&IC is too emotionally bullying and manipulative to feel like anything other than an endurance test for people who, for whatever reason, don't want to have things like a weepy Viola Davis (as sad Abby Black, first of Oskar's victims) or Sandra Bullock (wasted as Oskar's mom, a role that a cardboard standee with a tape recorder could have played) cue us to understand that... wait for it... now is when you're meant to start sobbing and have meaningful revelations about how we're all connected and family is love and blah blah puke. It is unbearably shameless - in comparison to Daldry's maudlin piling on of forced, melodramatic signposts, a tearjerker like War Horse seems about as warm as a Bresson picture. And while I've already said that I wouldn't go into the 9/11 thing... I mean, hell, there's such a thing as using the imagery of that day tastefully and purposefully, and then there's smacking the viewer with it like a 2x4 to the head (a late shot that visually mirrors the collapse of the first tower to Oksar swooning is particularly galling).

The problem is mainly than Daldry doesn't understand subtlety, neither emotionally, nor in any aspect of his directorial style (I recall The Hours, which looks more accomplished with every new project he releases, but still has a bad case of being too suffocatingly over-worked for its own good). Not one cut, not one sound cue, not one camera angle can go by, without being insisted upon in the most garish, obvious way; there is no moment that can't be overblown into the most wearying assault on the ears and eyes. Particularly his handling of poor Horn, who is probably not a naturally gifted actor like Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell was and continues to be, but isn't helped at all by direction that encourages him to load up on showy tics and keeps thrusting him into close-ups where he can't do much but furrow his brow and grimace like a parody of a 1915 silent movie.

It's a horribly tricky part, anyway, given that it's the keystone of the entire film's emotional landscape, and written to be almost deliberately unsympathetic (hard to say, on that last one; it could just be that Foer has no idea how not to make a 9-year-old with Asperger's sound just like himself, and the movie blithely follows suit). Of course Oskar has to be alienating; he has to have Asperger's in order to be emotionally blocked-off, and he has to be emotionally blocked-off in order to serve as a thunderously ham-fisted metaphor for post-9/11 New York (post-9/11 everywhere else is not a place the film is concerned with exploring). But there can be delicacy in all things; there is a right way to play this, perhaps like Haley Joel Osment in the opening scenes of A.I. What we get instead is basically Rain Man played by Jake Lloyd's Anakin Skywalker.

Really, though, nobody's terribly good in the film; Horn just suffers the most because he's in virtually every scene. Hanks is outlandish and quirky and wholly irritating; newly-minted Oscar nominee Max von Sydow is just sort of there; Viola Davis is sleepwalking; Jeffrey Wright is probably the strongest person we ever see, but he gets one whole scene, and half of it is in mute flashbacks. Chris Menges's cinematography is soft-focused to the point of self-parody; Alexandre Desplat's score is an unusually syrupy Koyaanisqatsi knock-off. There's nothing anywhere in the film's rushed but still deadening 129 minutes that isn't forced and obvious and cloying, and it is probably most interesting for giving Daldry the status of having directed the worst Best Picture nominee in two different years, the kind of achievement not seen very often since people like Sam Wood and Mervyn LeRoy stopped making pictures.