If you’re expecting that Scream star Liev Schreiber will turn Everything Is Illuminated into the kind of visually flat performance showcase we tend to expect from actors-turned-directors, all you need to do is look at the appearance of the film’s star, Elijah Wood. As protagonist Jonathan Safran Foer, an American Jew, Wood sports jet-black hair that looks lacquered, with a part so severe it appears to have been placed on his head in two discrete pieces. Owlish round glasses dominate his face; his only outfit is a black suit. He looks for all the world like a particularly curious mortician.
And in a sense, that’s what Jonathan is. Filling Ziploc bags with artifacts and pinning them to his wall, he finds himself obsessed with preserving memories of the past. It’s that obsession that sends him on a journey to the Ukraine, where he joins a malapropping translator named Alex (Eugene Hutz), Alex’s surly grandfather (Boris Leskin) and Grandfather’s dog'a “seeing-eye bitch” named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.'on a surreal road trip. His quest: To find the woman that, according to family history, saved Jonathan’s grandfather from the Nazis.
That quest was only half of the brilliant Jonathan Safran Foer novel'the author gave the protagonist his own name'on which Everything Is Illuminated is based. The book was exactly the kind of work that film adaptations usually butcher'a densely literary work full of multiple timelines, narrative in the form of correspondence and a combination of high and low humor. A rookie actor-turned-filmmaker tackling this book should have fallen flat on his familiar actor-turned-filmmaker face.
Schreiber’s savvy move is to pitch aside the concerns about fidelity that ordinarily might have paralyzed a neophyte. He axes entirely the portion of the novel dealing with several generations of Jonathan’s ancestors in their Ukrainian “shtetl.” He gives Jonathan himself'a fairly passive participant in the novel as narrated by Alex'a fleshed-out character. And he hones in on themes that weren’t nearly as prominent in Foer’s text.
But most notably, he opts to make his version of Everything Is Illuminated a film dependent on images, not words. His pacing is more meditative, allowing his camera to linger over the landscapes that show Ukrainians gravitating toward American culture even as Jonathan gravitates toward his ancestral home. He smartly isolates stylized goofiness to a sequence in which Jonathan describes his life, allowing us to recognize a slightly unreliable point of view. And he crafts arresting, surreal visions like a lone house isolated in a massive field of sunflowers, or Jonathan’s collage of vacuum-sealed mementos. The details of Schreiber’s visual canvas all seem to click.
As a screenwriter, he still has some work to do. Though he smartly retains some of Foer’s best punch lines and Alex’s entertainingly tortured English vocabulary'their difficult journey becomes “a very rigid searchâ€'he fumbles a few attempts to streamline the narrative. Most baffling is a radical change to the crucial backstory of Alex’s grandfather, turning his own quest for redemption into something dependent on ridiculous coincidence. Actions in both the past and present make no sense, undercutting the big emotions of the finale. Schreiber also makes the inefficient choice of using on-screen captions for Ukrainian dialogue Alex ends up translating. When those translations are watered-down versions of Grandfather’s tirades, it makes sense; when key pieces of story are unfolding, not so much.
There are still emotions that work, thanks largely to the appealing performances by Wood and Hutz. The latter'a gypsy-punk rock singer (see Music Live, p. 84) doing his first big-screen acting'never allows Alex to become a joke, lending gravity to his attempt to bond with this strange American. Wood, meanwhile, takes what could have been an opaque character and uses his open face to give Jonathan’s search a soul. And thanks to Foer’s words, the film is simply a funny, satisfying trip a lot of the time.
The surprise is that it’s something impressive to look at. Even as he works through some rookie bumps, Liev Schreiber shows himself in Everything Is Illuminated to be an actor-turned-filmmaker to watch. Not just to listen to'but actually to watch.