That audacious actor Liev Schreiber, best known to moviegoers as the momma's-boy assassin in 2004's version of The Manchurian Candidate, makes an improbably affecting writing-directing debut as adapter of Jonathan Safran Foer's celebrated novel, Everything Is Illuminated.
Basing his script not on the hyper-playful book but on the portion of it that appeared under the title "A Very Rigid Search" in the June 18, 2001, New Yorker, Schreiber has crafted a skewed and wacky odyssey that crawls up on unsuspecting viewers with surprising tragicomic force.
Elijah Wood plays the hero - named, like the author, Jonathan Safran Foer. He's an inveterate collector of objects that serve as clues to family history and sources of tactile memories. He goes to the Ukraine hoping to find the woman whom he thinks saved his grandfather before the Nazis wiped out their town.
Jonathan's quest becomes entwined with two Gentile Ukrainian tour guides, Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather (Boris Leskin), who have their own riddles of ancestry. They begin by viewing Jonathan as just another American sucker. But Jonathan's purity of intent and stringy, adamant courage win them over. His trip unlocks their clan's secret. It leads to an epiphany as powerful as anything in Faulkner: "Everything is illuminated in the light of the past."
Everything Is Illuminated rambles and sometimes wobbles like a runaway movie. But Schreiber's instincts keep the film frolicsome and vital. He steers a true if bumpy course toward plain-spoken profundity.
Leskin plays a depressed old man who drives a beat-up jalopy for his "Heritage" tours, which are really Jewish salvage missions. But before our eyes Leskin turns into an inarticulate prophet whose baleful silences speak folios. At the bottom of his layered inertia is a time bomb with a seven-decade fuse. He represents experience denied. By the end, it catches up with him.
Schreiber and Hutz exact all the farcical poetry from Alex's fractured English. When Alex calls sleeping "reposing" or "creating Zs," he makes you realize how the urban West has lost that dream of sleep's refreshment - of the Shakespearean sleep that "knits up the raveled sleeve of care." Hutz shapes Alex into a figure who needs to puzzle through the metaphysics of English expressions like "from the inside out." That desire joins him to Jonathan, who tries to take the "in" out of the intangible.
Schreiber cast the movie beautifully. With this crazy-quilt of characters, Schreiber displays a knack for the farce of incongruity. But he proves himself an artist when he captures how disparate branches of humanity can form a Family Tree of Life. Schreiber's film rises and falls on its climactic revelations about the mysteries of the disappearing village. He pulls it off with a riot of sunflowers and Laryssa Lauret's mournfully lyrical performance as the village's self-designated archivist.
She teaches Jonathan that when a dead person leaves behind a memento, it doesn't exist for the benefit of the beholder. The live person exists for it. Schreiber's film isn't perfect, but it's so incandescently heartfelt, so authentically mystical, it causes us to feel as if we exist for it in the same way.
Everything Is Illuminated (Warner Independent)
Starring Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz and Boris Leskin.
Directed by Liev Schreiber.