Elijah Wood has eyes like klieg lights, and to look at them directly for too long is to fear for your corneas, and to wonder what exactly is going on in that sizable but delicately featured head of his. For orbs so distinctive, they are oddly blank and mesmerizing. You half expect his irises to start swirling if you fix on them for too long.
In Liev Schreiber's "Everything Is Illuminated," Wood's eyes seem to take in everything and reveal nothing. Which may have been the idea. Wood plays Jonathan Safran Foer, an aspiring writer and namesake of the author of the book on which the movie is based, who travels from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Ukraine to find Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
To this end, the fictional Jonathan engages a travel agency catering to "rich Jews searching for their dead families," as Alex Perchov (Eugene Hutz), reluctant third-generation scion of Heritage Touring, describes the family business. A break-dancer in a Kangol cap, whose mangled English is rendered even more florid and unruly thanks to a gift thesaurus, Alex has been coerced by his father into serving as Jonathan's questionable guide and translator, even though he'd rather stay in Odessa, frequenting "famous nightclubs" and "getting carnal" with girls. Having come of age in the post-Soviet era, Alex can't fathom why Jonathan would embark on such a "rigid search" for a ghost when he could have stayed in America — a place Alex very much wishes he could visit.
A contemporary folk tale about the Holocaust and Jewish diaspora, Foer's novel is also concerned with memory; the exponentially incremental nature of cause and effect; displacement; the impossibility of arriving at the same truth from different points of departure; and the bearing of the past on individual identity, among other things. In the book, chapters of Jonathan's magical-realist epic-in-progress alternate with Alex's record of their trip and his subsequent letters to Jonathan critiquing the work and offering his version of the story.
In other words, it's an impossible book to adapt, and Schreiber wisely doesn't try to cram everything into his lean and visual script. Eliminating all but Alex's account of the road trip as it unfolds — the story follows Alex, his grief-stricken grandfather, his grandfather's dog, Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, and Jonathan as they set out to find Augustine armed with nothing more than the name of a shtetl (Trachimbrod) and a faded photograph — Schreiber takes Foer's sprawling, multilayered, multigenerational beast and hones it into a post-Glasnost buddy picture; a polished nugget of a road movie, focused mainly on Alex and Jonathan's growing sense of identification with each other and with their origins. The director also leaves the story on the happy note that Alex would have wanted, which suits an author-tweaking meta-narrative like this one. As critic Roland Barthes said, "It is language which speaks, not the author."
Like Foer, Schreiber dabbles in styles (some carnivalesque scenes feel borrowed from Fellini, and moments of expressionistic deadpan from Kubrick); but in a script so lean and spare, the stylistic visual flourishes sometimes threaten to overwhelm. Some, like the one in which Jonathan visits his sick grandmother in an all-white room, feel forced and mannered. Others, though, radiate with a stark brilliance, such as the scene in which the threesome drives past a huge, bombed-out building that looks as if it may have once housed a major bureaucracy. "What is it?" asks Jonathan. "Soviets," replies Alex. "What happened?" asks Jonathan. "Independence," says Alex.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the book — and it may be more a function of the art form than authorial choice, but probably both — is that the movie lets us have a good, objective look at Jonathan: bespectacled, phobic, vegetarian, dressed in a dark suit like a 1950s insurance salesman and too archly self-aware to participate in his own life, which he prefers to preserve, scrap by scrap, in Ziploc baggies. Trinkets, playing cards, cigarette butts, used condoms, potato wedges, bridgework — anything that can carefully be sealed in a sandwich bag gets tacked to a wall in his room on which each member of the Foer family, living and dead, is represented by a framed portrait and a plaque. Jonathan obsessively collects, catalogs and archives his life as though it were already past.
Hutz's Alex, meanwhile, is a prism reflecting received notions and amusingly distorted ideas about American culture. Hutz, a first-time actor better known for his Ukrainian Gypsy punk New York-based band, Gogol Bordello, grew up in the Ukraine, and drew on his own observations of how America was perceived in the Soviet bloc, as well as on his own experiences with surviving repression through insane, unwarranted optimism.
The contrast between Jonathan and Alex, while funny in the book, is starkly illuminated by the movie. Schreiber presents the two as poster children for Cold War notions of national character, only their roles have been reversed. Here, it's Jonathan who is static, fatalistic, sentimental, morbidly obsessed with the past and fixated on preservation, whereas Alex is naïve, optimistic, unburdened by the past, fixated on the newest new thing. Jonathan's life is a museum. Alex's life is an unknown frontier. Jonathan wears a suit. Alex wears a track suit. Jonathan leans toward tragedy. Alex insists on the importance of happy endings. Jonathan fictionalizes and sentimentalizes the past. Alex tells a true, living story.
Will the real American please stand up?
'Everything Is Illuminated'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing images/violence, sexual content and language.
A Warner Independent Pictures release. Director Liev Schreiber. Producers Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf. Executive producer Matthew Stillman. Screenplay by Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Director of photography Matthew Libatique. Editor Craig McKay. Costume designer Michael Clancy. Music Paul Cantelon. Production designer Mark Geraghty. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 289-4262; and Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times