It is not necessarily a bad thing to watch a film and come away with the sensation that something larger is looming just beyond the frame. Having never read Jonathan Safran Foer's autobiographical novel Everything Is Illuminated, I'm not sure how much of the book this film adaptation manages to capture, but I get the distinct feeling that first-time director Liev Schreiber is having trouble separating his experience of the novel from the one his film manages to create.
The movie is carried by its supporting cast and the slowly mounting relationship its characters have with their intertwining pasts. Elijah Wood, whose acting amounts to watery-eyed gawking, plays Jonathan, an American who has come to Ukraine to search out the village where his grandfather lived and the woman who helped him escape to America during World War II. Jonathan is a collector, obsessively acquiring objects that relate to his family, preserving his memories in plastic Ziploc bags.
Luckily for us, Jonathan enlists the aid of a tour service, which specializes in helping American Jews search for their ancestors. His tour guides include the cantankerous old driver, Grandfather (Boris Leskin), who claims to be blind, and his deranged "seeing-eye bitch" Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. Serving as Jonathan's translator is young Ukrainian hip-hop fan Alex (Eugene Hutz), whose brand of American vernacular is almost worth the price of admission. "Because I am such a premium dancer, I have much carnal relations," he informs us early on.
The three men quickly become lost in the vast expanses of rural Ukraine. As they drive deeper into the country, Grandfather's anti-Semitism begins to wedge open his own reasons for taking this journey. Jonathan and Grandfather are both on a quest to the same place, and their distrust of one another forces Alex to begin questioning his own family's past actions. Schreiber's handling of the dynamics within the trio -- well, quartet if you count Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. -- is agile and well paced.
It is when the traveling circus finally arrives in Trachimbrod that the film's near-mystical aura comes to life. Living alone in an ocean of sunflowers is Lista (Laryssa Lauret), who appears at first to be the woman Jonathan is searching for. She is not quite the person Jonathan thought she was, but she is a collector as well. Her connections to Grandfather run as deeply as they do to Jonathan, and her presence sends their various histories roiling to the surface.
For these characters, coming to terms with the past is an illuminating experience, providing the possibility of closure. This is an enjoyable and interesting film, but I'm not certain that it ever comes to grips with its own source material. It is a solid film, and if it doesn't completely satisfy, it certainly provides the impetus to search further, which perhaps is the most fitting adaptation of all.
Everything Is Illuminated
Opening Friday, October 21st
Studio on the Square