Luckily for all, the poignancy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” is not lost in the opacity of Elijah Wood’s coke-bottle glasses. And while Liev Schreiber’s streamlined film version of Foer’s work may lack some of the novel’s characteristic depth and subtlety, the film alternates between being candidly funny and benignly sad quite elegantly. Perhaps the only real flaw is that it never manages to juggle the two extremes with the book’s brilliant delicacy.
Part cultural exploration and part buddy comedy, the film is narrated in letter form by a track suit-swathed Ukrainian tour guide named Alex, who likes “American movies, muscular cars and hip-hop music.” This caricature of cultural appropriation is surprisingly well-played by Eugene Hutz, the real-life lead singer of a European gypsy punk band (the obscure Gogol Bordello). Hutz’s performance is substantially better than his band’s music — a cringe-worthy and flatulent-sounding fusion of Eastern European folk music and American rap and rock — which finds its way into the movie’s soundtrack twice.
Alex’s dysfunctional parents still carry strong ties to the old world and reject their son’s affected and truly outlandish persona. They snidely run a “heritage tour” service, taking rich American Jews to search for remnants of their past left behind in rural villages when their families fled the Nazi occupation. Yet the irony of this anti-Semitic and fractured family’s unusual occupation is hardly touched. Instead, they are largely forgotten after Alex’s father whacks him in the head and insists that he accompany his allegedly blind grandfather on a tour.
While Alex has dedicated his life to impersonating American pop culture, his unlikely traveling companion, the young author Jonathan Safran Foer, looks like a relic of an older and more serious American era. Jonathan, played by Elijah Wood, is a collector of family artifacts and has arrived, jacketed in a staid black suit, to find the woman who helped his grandfather escape to America.
When the two caricatures meet at the train station — an encounter made more awkward by a deafening Gogol Bordello rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” — Foer is overwhelmed and frigid. Wood is so stiff that his performance is uncomfortably reminiscent of the sadistic and methodical cannibal Kevin in “Sin City.” Fortunately, the occasionally talented actor thaws and it soon becomes clear that the soul searching Jonathan is, like Alex, just a slightly overgrown kid looking for answers and an identity.
They set off to tour the country in the company of Alex’s foul-mouthed and anti-Semitic grandfather and his “seeing eye bitch” Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (named after grandfather’s favorite American musician, who could not possibly be Jewish). As they tour a land of mischievous goatherds and gypsy carnivals, the endearingly affected Alex spins ridiculous malapropisms and mixed metaphors. All the while, deeper plot and character development emerge amidst a background of hilarious, if predictable, cultural humor. Wood looks so perpetually close to tears that the language jokes remain potent, even when a bit unlikely and overdone.
The film begins with the stark grays of Jonathan’s America and travels through the sepia-toned photos of his extensive wall-mounted collection, finally ending with the vivid green fields of the Ukrainian countryside. Schreiber and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have crafted a beautiful visual narrative, composed of flashbacks and dream sequences that mingle the old world with the new. Ziploc bags and shirtless skateboarders appear incongruously dispersed in a country where abandoned tanks from World War II still lie rusting in roadside ditches.
Time is malleable as all three characters search for meaning and identity through the truth of their different pasts. These flashbacks serve as an homage to the film’s professed theme: “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past, it is always on the side of us, on the inside looking out.”
Although the effort to cut an emotionally layered novel into a feasible feature film has cost “Everything is Illuminated” many of its most poignant revelations, the remaining product is more than satisfying. And while the book’s emotional depths are far more profound, Schreiber’s interpretation is, nonetheless, delicate and moving.