It's hard to imagine a piece of writing less tractable to screen adaptation than Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed 2002 novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Foer is an ancient head on schoolboy shoulders, and this hilarious, tender, agonized ramble through modern Jewish-American identity by way of three centuries of Jewish-Ukrainian history is dense enough to defeat a far more seasoned filmmaker than Liev Schreiber. Yet it's also, improbably, a romp, and on his first outing as a writer-director, Schreiber, who shares a Ukrainian-Jewish background with Foer, has made some smart choices, not the least of which is to base his boisterous adaptation on a short excerpt that appeared in The New Yorker.
Foer's story, which is sustained by an uproarious running joke that's primarily linguistic, is written in several powerful voices, which Schreiber pares down to two. One is the plaintive whine of Jonathan Safran Foer, a neurasthenic New York Jew and compulsive collector of family miscellany that runs to false teeth and diaphragms, represented in near-hysterical deadpan by Elijah Wood, whose bulging Hobbit eyes peer through thick black glasses at a world Jonathan finds hard to comprehend and harder yet to find a home in. The other is the headlong logorrheic chatter of Alex, a young Odessan who, along with his grandfather (Boris Leskin) and a mutt with frightening teeth named Sammy Davis Junior Junior, drives the young writer around rural Ukraine in search of the vanished village of Trachimbrod and a woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. I'm not sure that any screenplay could do full justice to the dictionary-derived, crucified English of Alex, which had me bent over with laughter when I read the novel. Schreiber makes as good a job of it as can be done, and it helps that Alex is played with demented brio by Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian-American non-pro better known as the lead singer of the New York-based Gypsy punk-rock band Gogol Bordello. With his pale, elongated features, Hutz has a medieval monk's face incongruously perched atop gold chains and a crimson tracksuit. As Alex, he's the charismatic, hapless soul of the movie and a particularly screwy representative of the new Ukraine—a chaotic nut house where American pop culture is adoringly mangled into a mash of Michael Jackson and McDonald's, where a casual anti-Semitism flows as free as it ever did under Nazi occupation and beyond.
Two more different specimens of humanity than Jonathan and Alex—each in his way emblematic of his society—could hardly be found. Yet as they drive around the luscious Ukrainian countryside (the movie was shot in Prague), it transpires that much more unites them than their love for their respective grandfathers. For a novice, Schreiber, who took instruction from Jonathan Demme and others while he was working on The Manchurian Candidate, shows a precocious grasp of pacing and tonal balance, and a vivacious way with the telling image. Everything Is Illuminatedmaintains its jaunty, off-the-cuff mood until, late in the day, Schreiber takes our breath away with a vista of a field crammed with blazing sunflowers, at the end of which sits a modest whitewashed cottage with bedsheets billowing from a laundry line. Inside waits an old woman, Lista (Laryssa Lauret), who in response to Jonathan's last-ditch query about where to find Trachimbrod, answers simply, "I am it."
Like Jonathan, Lista is a collector, but where Jonathan's accretions have been his substitute for living, hers—she's a one-woman archive—bear urgent witness to the need to remember a terrible past. It's not just Jonathan who's liberated by the discovery that some secrets are best not kept, but Alex too. And in a shocking image toward the end of this brave and loving movie, someone else is freed from his past with a most unlikely act of love.
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTE BY LIEV SCHREIBER, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER; PRODUCED BY MARC TURTLETAUB AND PETER SARAF. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.