"Everything Is Illuminated" is no average tale of let's-go-find-where-Grandpa's-shtetl-shtood. Heavy with the burden of translating the shiftingly excellent narrative techniques of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 novel on which it is based, the movie can't help but take on a slightly too twee tone. Depending on your pop-cult sensibilities (Do you like the Dave Eggers crowd? Do you pay rent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Do you listen raptly to public radio's "This American Life"?), you are free to revel in "Everything Is Illuminated's" magical groove (I did) while at the same time finding it puzzlingly dull (I did that, too) and not quite the storytelling achievement you once considered it to be.
Either way, you do get a gloriously funny bit of acting from one Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian American punk rock singer from a real-life band called Gogol Bordello. Combine Ali G. and a klezmer Vanilla Ice with "The Real World: Ukraine" and you'd begin to have a hint of the shiny-Adidas-tracksuited mack daddy Hutz brings to life in the role of Alex Perchov, a clubhopping child of glasnost whose command of English is its own sublime malaprop-poetry. (Michael Jackson, Alex proclaims, is a "most premium Negro," and this is why "Billie Jean" is Alex's favorite song; as soon as his voice-over pronounces this, the club crowd parts and he break-dances on his head. Somewhere, Stalin weeps.)
Liev Schreiber, a serious actor's actor making his screenwriting/directorial debut here, has wisely taken an editor's pencil to the denser, Holocaust-ier parts of Foer's novel, in which whole sections flash back to Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian village wiped out in World War II.
As "Jonathan Safran Foer" -- part of the novel's ambition was the author's invention of a quasi-fictional self as protagonist -- a nerded-out Elijah Wood arrives in present-day Odessa, hoping to travel deep in-country to Trachimbrod and see what (or who) is left. Foer is preoccupied with collecting trivial objects of his family's history, the discarded things of their daily lives. As far as his deceased grandfather, Safran, goes, all he's got is a pendant of amber with a grasshopper frozen inside it, and a photograph of the young Safran and a girl standing in a field in Trachimbrod, before the soldiers came.
Alex Perchov's family -- which has made a small tour guide business out of escorting foreign-born Jews around remote Ukrainian homelands -- takes Foer on as a client. Reluctantly, Alex agrees to accompany Foer, with Alex's sight-impaired and extremely cranky grandfather (Boris Leskin) behind the wheel of a clunky Sachsenring Trabant. With a temperamental family dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. in the back seat, they set off on a three-day trip ("a very rigid search," according to Alex) to find the shtetl, which is no longer on the map.
Between Alex's comical narration, Foer's OCD-level oddness and the realization that they are hopelessly lost in the exotic banality of the countryside, the first hour of "Everything Is Illuminated" is an intriguing, almost Oz-like romp of discovery, doing visually for the Ukrainian countryside what "Y Tu Mama Tambien" did for the Mexican interior. (Come to find, according to the production notes, "Everything Is Illuminated" was instead shot in and around Prague. Well, drat. It's still pretty, and at least a field of sunflowers featured near the film's end is apparently real, planted months in advance of filming.)
By the time Foer and company discover Trachimbrod (and its last resident, played with cool creepiness by Laryssa Lauret), the symmetry of plot that originally served the novel so well comes off on film as an unbelievably drippy coinkydink, with predictably grainy memories of Nazis woven in; Schreiber and company take the compulsion for tidy endings a step too far. Things aren't helped much by Wood's overly shy performance as Foer -- more freak than sympathetic young man, an oddness that may further fan the recent flamings the real Foer has taken from book critics and other naysayers for his disappointing, 9/11-themed second novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." (Note to studios: Pass on that one.)
And if we want to talk about interesting novels and the often terrible movies made from them, then let us now praise Schreiber, who took a very weird and delightful book, stayed absolutely faithful to its story and style, and made a clinically adequate, occasionally above-average art house film. In certain moments, it has all the subtlety and illumination one should ever need.
Everything Is Illuminated (104 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and Loews Cineplex Dupont) is rated PG-13 for some adult situations and mild violence.
Jonathan, center, is a little uncertain where his journey with Alex and his grandfather will lead him.