Everything is Illuminated
Warner Independent Pictures
Directed by Liev Schreiber
Starring Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, and Stephen Samudovsky
Rated PG-13

Adaptations of popular novels are inevitably letdowns for some people. Cult novels especially, with their legions of rabid fans carrying signed first editions, turn to bitter battlegrounds whenever the Hollywood recycling machine decides to take one on. Each excised scene and every quietly deleted minor character is lovingly eulogized like unknown soldiers that only the book’s faithful were aware of. Given the typical tossed-off quality, bottom-line obsession, and sequel-mania of the major studios, Lord of the Rings is as notable for its accuracy to the source material as for its special effects.

The curious thing about Everything is Illuminated, a new film from actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber, is that it’s severely hampered by a screenplay that waters down much of the book’s power. But the blow isn’t lethal — the film is still a moving rumination on memory and history, carefully maintaining the balance between fish-out-of-water comedy and Holocaust drama.

The book, by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also authored the recent Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) spins the tale of a young Jewish man, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, who journeys to Russia on a quest to find the village from which his grandfather emigrated. The village no longer exists, unless you count a single old woman who’s collected the town’s remains and stored them since the invasion. Foer hires a spastic Ukrainian club kid named Alex (Eugene Hutz) to ferry him across the countryside in search of the village. Much of the book’s rollicking humor comes from Alex’s Pidgin English letters to Foer, acting as critique of a book-in-progress that Foer-the-character is writing. As for Jonathan, he’s played by Frodo himself, Elijah Wood, although his character is much less interesting than he appears in the novel.

If you haven’t read it, you should, since I can’t possibly do it justice here. Unfortunately, Schreiber doesn’t quite either. The book, which Schreiber optioned before it was even published, is simply too expansive, effortlessly weaving Foer’s correspondence with Alex with absurdist scenes of the last days of the village and even a secondary subplot concerning Alex’s grandfather’s own implication in the massacre of Jews in a separate village. This last bit is the most egregious misstep of Schreiber’s adaptation, but to explain it here would mean a huge spoiler. If you know the book, you might be bothered by it. If not, there’s nothing to worry about.

Schreiber has a reputation for being an actor’s actor, and his projects always show a serious attention to his craft. Everything is Illuminated is a labor of love, and the film conveys an emotional power that is sorely missing in much prestige moviemaking. Schreiber’s own family emigrated from Eastern Europe, and he takes pains to give the film a klezmer feel in the comic first hour — it’s closest in spirit to the films of Emir Kusturica. The rolling fields of the Ukraine (actually shot in the Czech Republic) are brought to life in almost otherworldly color, underlined by the baby blue station wagon they rumble around in. Eugene Hutz is a hot property who also happens to front the band Gogol Bordello, and his inspired malapropisms (“Jonfen, you are a very premium person”) give the dialogue a bizarre zest.

I don’t mean to imply that this is one of my favorite books ever, or that fans of the book won’t be able to appreciate the job Schreiber’s done. The tone is wistful and — when it’s not boisterous — quiet, and its climax is bracing. It lacks the book’s range, but still captures its spirit. That in itself is remarkable. For the moment, though, it’s good that Schreiber still has his day job.

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