Screens Everything is adapted 

In the film version of Jonathan Safran Foer’s hit novel, characters are weirder and the spectacle is greater

In his first film as a director, acclaimed actor Liev Schreiber discards half of the best-selling novel he is adapting, Everything Is Illuminated. Gone is the magical-realist account of a few decades in the life of a vanished Ukranian village; when it comes to history, Schreiber is mainly interested in the memories of a generation that is only now dying off.

The contemporary portion of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book is narrated by Alex, the translator of dubious qualifications who leads an American in search of the village his grandfather fled during the Holocaust. Readers who found Alex’s tortured English annoying rather than funny needn’t worry: In the movie, in which Alex is one of three main characters instead of the sole storyteller, his malapropisms serve as easily appreciated comic relief.

click to enlarge screens-illuminated2_330jpg
Elijah Wood portrays the author Jonathan Safran Foer, and Eugene Hutz makes his screen debut as his guide, Alex, in the film adaptation of Safran Foer’s best-selling novel, Everything is Illuminated.

Still, Alex is the best thing about the film. Novice actor Eugene Hutz (whose day job is front-man for the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello) does right by the character, nailing his faux-confident swagger and his charming eagerness to please a sophisticated American.

Hutz bridges the gap between his two co-stars. As the American, Elijah Wood is a caricature of obsessive introspection. Wearing a crisp black suit, spit-combed hair, and huge spectacles that make an intentional joke out of his saucer-sized eyes, Wood has a habit of plucking up bits of detritus and preserving them in Ziploc bags, hoping to collect a tangible chronicle of fleeting emotions. He’s a weirdo, in other words, where the novel’s hero was your average over-educated New York writer-to-be. This decision is harder to justify than the film’s focus on the present, in that we have a more difficult time identifying with Wood, who even in the best circumstances is not the world’s most accessible actor.

Everything Is Illuminated
Dir. Liev Schreiber; writ. Schreiber, Jonathan Safran Foer (novel); feat. Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin (PG-13)

Making Wood a cartoon, though, does shift some attention to the story’s hidden source of pathos, Alex’s unnamed Grandfather (Boris Leskin). Ostensibly the hired driver on this expedition, Grandfather obviously has some ties to the town he’s been hired to find. If the film is coy about its interest in Grandfather’s history, it’s only because Schreiber wants its eventual revelation to be, well, revelatory — and while the emotional climax is handled in a fairly conventional way, Schreiber succeeds in humanizing the character, who is a stand-in for all the real-world old men and women reluctant to talk about their World War II experiences.

Like many an actor-turned-director, Schreiber is eager to show he has an artistic vision to express. As a result, Everything Is Illuminated is a sometimes distractingly stylized film, boasting perfect acres of sunflowers and meticulous arrays of collected junk. The value of all this spectacle is debatable, but to his credit, Schreiber never loses sight of the human emotions that made him care about this story in the first place.

By John DeFore


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