Okay, class, here’s a question: You’re watching a movie that stars Elijah Wood, and one of the characters in the film says to him, “The ring is not here because of us. We are here because of the ring.” What movie is it?
If you answered “The Lord of the Rings,” two demerits; turns out this line makes its appearance in “Everything Is Illuminated,” the cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s celebrated debut novel, opening in movie theaters September 16. And while this film, too, concerns a certain fellowship of the ring, its interests lie less in the mystical realm and more within the complex jumble of modern life and the bittersweet remnants of a European Jewish culture that is no longer.
In bringing “Illuminated” to the arthouse, director and screenwriter Liev Schreiber has made the smart (and obvious) move of jettisoning the magical-realist shtetl half of the novel and retaining only the parts of the book that even Foer skeptics enjoyed: the interactions between Jonathan and his Ukrainian handlers — Iron Curtain b-boy Alex and his cantankerous grandfather.
Wood stars as Jonathan, a pasty-faced, no-neck geek whose pallor and demeanor bring to mind the butt of jokes from some private-school comedy of yore. After his grandmother’s death, he decides to journey to Ukraine and track down Augustina, the mysterious woman photographed with his grandfather in an ancient snapshot, who helped save Jonathan’s grandfather from the Nazis. To facilitate his quest, he hires Heritage Tours, a company whose mission it is to assist wealthy American Jews in finding their roots in exchange for large infusions of foreign currency.
Contrary to its distinguished name, Heritage mainly consists of a broken-down blue Trabant, an aged and moody driver (Boris Leskin), and Sammy Davis Jr., Jr., the driver’s seeing-eye dog. As in the novel, the character who provides the majority of the comic relief here is the driver’s grandson, Alex (Eugene Hutz), who serves as translator and all-around middleman between his grandfather’s antisemitic rants and Jonathan’s pained neuroses. Alex favors gold chains and Kangol caps, dresses like a Beastie Boy circa 1986, and is prone to highly creative manglings of the English language as well as to such pronouncements as, “I also enjoy writing, but I truly feel I was born to be accountant.” Their travelogue is a study in culture clash, juxtaposing bourgeois American Jews with hardscrabble Ukrainians, ancient churches with outposts of McDonald’s, grannies with skateboarders. “Everything Is Illuminated” carefully transcribes all the confusions inherent in such a union, from Jonathan’s vegetarianism (which is taken by the locals as a sign of mental deficiency) to Alex’s disbelief that the real-life Sammy Davis Jr. was Jewish.
Unlike the printed page, the movie screen demands coherent characters, ones that could exist reasonably outside the diegetic realm of the narrative. Where Alex was sufficient as a hilarious walking malaprop in Foer’s novel, here he must do double duty, serving also as a legitimate sidekick in Jonathan’s quest. In fact, the movie as a whole is a bit like a poky Trabant, demanding a constant, unending shifting of gears to maintain its forward thrust. Schreiber alternates comic scenes with soft-focus nostalgic ones, and the ways in which the film’s two modes jostle up against each other without actually touching much is indicative of his limitations as a first-time filmmaker.
Nonetheless, “Everything Is Illuminated” is the rare literary adaptation with the nerve to stay true to its source material’s moods, even when that means a film whose bulk is given over to jokes about Ukrainian cuisine and verbal diarrhea. Jonathan is rendered marvelously strange, as well, a collector with an unrestrained urge to save everything, from a potato to his grandmother’s false teeth. To this purpose, he accessorizes his undertaker’s suit with a fanny pack jammed full of baggies of all different shapes and sizes, to meet the needs of any potential acquisition along the way.
The film abandons its whimsical passages about two-thirds of the way through, transitioning to a more emotional brand of post-Holocaust shtetl nostalgia. Jonathan discovers the village of Trachimbrod, hometown of his grandfather, but its current condition is something of a surprise. And Alex’s grandfather, who appears to fade into a trance partway into the film, flashes back to an ambiguous moment in his past: Is his ambivalence toward Jonathan the product of a guilty conscience, or is it something else? The film ends with two rhyming graveside sequences, one of them a lump-inducing surprise. The fact that its revelation is fairly incoherent when placed in the context of the film as a whole is rendered irrelevant by its emotional force, which partially overwhelms this amusing film with its tragic implications. “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past,” Alex notes, and the nature of this film’s illumination is both searing and comforting, soothing even where it finds nothing but devastation in its path.
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.