Jonathan, a twentysomething Jewish New Yorker, preserves his family's history without question -- enclosing their personal items in clear plastic bags. This curious, detached activity suits Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a quiet, uptight sort, rigid in an old-fashioned dark suit with eyes rendered cartoonishly huge behind heavy framed glasses. But one bit of memorabilia -- an old photograph of his grandfather in a Ukrainian field, posed with a woman who according to lore helped him flee the Nazis -- intrigues, and Jonathan decides to uncover the story.
His journey into the Ukrainian countryside, and deep into the heart of his family's painful past, forms the spine of the quirky comedy-drama Everything Is Illuminated, directed by the actor Liev Schreiber and adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel.
In Kiev, Jonathan retains the services of Heritage Tours, a ragtag operation led by an irascible and self-described "blind" anti-Semite (Boris Leskin) who also drives; his thirtysomething grandson Alex (Eugene Hutz) acts as translator and caretaker of the "seeing-eye bitch," a mutt named Sammy Davis Junior Junior.
The film's scene-stealer is Hutz, a Ukrainian who currently resides in New York City and fronts the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello. From Alex's pitiful attempts at being hip hop (made further ridiculous by his age) to his mangled English and inept translations, Hutz provides most of the film's laughs -- as well as its voice-over -- yet his characterization remains, if not quite heartfelt, at least warmly bumbling.
The first two-thirds of the film are a literal as well figurative road trip, but eventually Schreiber forefronts the catalytic role of the Holocaust. This is a tough transition and I'm not sure it's entirely successful. Up until this point, the oddball story works because the actors employ a detached, post-ironic manner. But when the subject matter turns unimaginably tragic, this laconic style hampers what should be an emotional bombshell -- though the introduction of another collector to match Jonathan's obsession does aid the shift in tone.
For his first swim in the directorial pool, Schreiber clearly has jumped in at the deep end, tackling a work that shifts from silly to sober, that spans several generations and two continents, and that features deeply enigmatic characters that we must nonetheless grow to care about. At times, Schreiber finds this balance, and he displays a nice eye for pretty pictures (and the actor's fancy for lengthy shots of actors contemplating). Contemporary Hollywood is awash in actors who pine to direct, and too often the results are simply exercises in vanity. Schreiber took a risk on tricky material, and the result is a slight, and slightly muddled, but often rewarding picture. In English, and Russian, with subtitles.