Not so much an adaptation as a miniaturization, Liev Schreiber’s film of Jonathan Safran Foer’s extravagant novel becomes a cheeky though intimate tale of an American Jew’s journey into his family’s European past, told with a rather heavy-handedly surrealistic sensibility. “Everything Is Illuminated” basically wants to reveal the painful legacy of the Holocaust, but the light it sheds on the subject is at best a flickering one.
Elijah Wood, habitually clothed in a black suit and wearing big black-rimmed glasses whose thick lenses accentuate the size of his eyes, and for the most part as emotionally impassive as he was in “Sin City,” plays a Jewish fellow named Jonathan Foer, an avid collector of family memorabilia–he’s covered a wall with items pinned to it, encased in plastic protective bags. Jonathan travels to the Ukraine to find out the truth about a woman pictured with his late grandfather into a photo he’s just received from his dying grandmother, and there he’s taken around the country by a voluble, flashily-dressed young translator named Alex (Eugene Hutz), whose knowledge of English may leave something to be desired but who loves American popular culture with a passion. The two are driven around, in search of the place called Trachimbrod mentioned on the photo, by Alex’s irascible grandfather (Boris Leskin), who claims to be blind; they’re accompanied by the old man’s purported seeing-eye dog, a mongrel named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. After a series of adventures, some of them humorously deadpan and others bleakly tense, the trio (or quartet, if you include the mongrel) locate the place they’ve been looking for–and in a sequence that mixes near-hallucinatory imagery and dreamlike atmosphere with rather earthbound revelations, all the travelers learn painful lessons about the past and the necessity of coming to terms with them.
One has to appreciate what Schreiber is reaching for in “Everything Is Illuminated”–an off-kilter yet resonant depiction of the bittersweet nature of recovering a portion of history that contained elements both uplifting and tragic, revealing both the heights and the depths of which human nature is capable. What undermines the effort is that the first-time director doesn’t yet have the skill to balance the disparate tones or to meld them satisfyingly. The transitions are often jarring, and as a result the picture comes to feel like a succession of disconnected episodes rather than a coherent whole. It doesn’t help that the lead character, who’s supposed to be the audience surrogate, remains so opaque throughout. Wood does what was presumably asked of him at first–he acts the part of a black blank slate. But he fails to register the changes the trip effects in Jonathan successfully, so that at the end, when he’s presumably been deeply affected by the experience, he doesn’t appear much altered. His impassivity means that the spotlight (and the viewer’s interest) shifts largely to Hutz’s Alex, a much more accessible–and in the actor’s unrestrained performance–engaging fellow, and to Leskin, whose grizzled looks and amusingly nasty mien leave a somewhat formulaic but still amusing impression. From the audience’s perspective the picture becomes interesting more as a journey of discovery and bonding for them rather than one for Jonathan–which (presumably) isn’t exactly what Schreiber intended.
For a modestly-budgeted picture, “Everything Is Illuminated” has been imaginatively staged, and some scenes (such as that near the close located at the sunflower-surrounded house where Laryssa Lauret appears as a woman who reveals the secrets of Trachimbrod to the travelers) are visually very striking. But in the final analysis there are simply too many bumps along the way in this ambitious road movie to make it a trip worth taking.