The precocious literary gymnastics of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel have been boiled down to more elementary Holocaust-related memorabilia in “Everything Is Illuminated.” Liev Schreiber’s feature writing and directing debut eschews the book’s stylistic daring in favor of a plainly straightforward account of a young New York writer’s quest for his family’s roots in a vanished Ukrainian shtetl. Subject matter will stimulate sympathetic interest and perhaps some enthusiasm from Jewish and literary-oriented auds, and Elijah Wood’s name will provide a draw up to a point, but overall prospects look moderate in specialized release.
It would have taken a daring filmmaker on the order of Darren Aronofsky or Emir Kustirica on a good day to conceive of anything resembling the cinematic equivalent of Foer’s 2001 novel, which boldly skips through more than 200 years of history, features a dauntingly large cast of characters and both strenuously and hilariously flaunts a seemingly unlimited talent for manipulating the English language.
No one seeing Schreiber’s film could begin to imagine the breadth and nature of the book, as the estimable thesp has narrowed the focus to the near-present and the curious journey of one Jonathan Safran Foer (Wood) to former Soviet territory to track down the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
Opening scenes have a vaguely eccentric feel, as Jonathan, an ultra-fastidious lad who looks about 17 and is accoutered throughout in a black suit and thick framed glasses that enlarge his blue eyes to an eerie extent, is given a yellowed photo of his youthful grandfather and a woman identified as Augustine. Jonathan has a large wall pinned with ancestral artifacts that identifies him as an anal retentive of the first order.
His opposite number can be found over in Odessa, Russia. Alex (Eugene Hutz, looking not unlike the young John Turturro) sports an ear stud, gold tooth and heavy bling, worships Negroes (as he puts it), hip-hop and break dancing and can imagine moving to America to make lots of money. He also has a gift for gab, which his fractured and distorted locutions in English only enhance.
Alex’s aged grandfather (Boris Leskin) has made a career of taking “rich Jewish people” around the country looking for their relatives and ancestral homes. But despite his being fed up with all Jews, alive and dead, as well as his claim to blindness, the old crank agrees to chauffeur Jonathan on his search for the village of Trachimbrod, with Alex going along as translator.
Divided into five titled chapters, pic begins showing its middle-brow colors as the three men hit the road in an antique Trabant; extended travelogue footage plastered with slabs of ethnic music is punctuated by very broad comic relief provided by a pet pooch named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (when in doubt, cut to the dog, seems to be the byword).
In general, Schreiber’s approach is one of reducing the rich, if sometimes overwrought, material down to its most accessible, audience-pleasing elements. Jonathan’s uptight, humorless mien blocks the development of any further character traits; role’s rigid conception might have worked had the rest of the picture been similarly stylized, a la Jarmusch or the Coen Brothers. As it is, Wood’s powerlessness to break out of the emotive straightjacket hands the picture to his Russian costars on a platter, and they run with it.
The gangly Hutz has fun with Alex’s loose, crude attitude and easily tosses off the delightful malapropisms that lace his dialogue. Hitting comic and dramatic notes, Leskin powerfully delivers as the often silent grandfather, whose feigned blindness is a convenient mask and whose ultimate reaction to what they find provides for sobering understated dramatics.
The latter’s discovery of a hidden ravine filled with World War II armaments triggers the men’s eventual encounter with the tragic past. An old woman (Laryssa Lauret, very good) who knew the man in Jonathan’s photograph brings to life, with the visual aid of discreet flashbacks, the awful events that took place there in 1942. As touching as some viewers may find the late-on revelations, their harrowing nature is watered down from the novel, in line with the film’s general eagerness to please and not to disturb too much.
Matthew Libatique’s alert camerawork seems in search of a unifying stylistic approach that is never defined. Czech countryside fills in nicely for Ukrainian locales.