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It's generally futile business, I think, trying to compare films to the novels on which they're based. Pauline Kael wrote something interesting about this, in her rave review of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. She was essentially pissed at her friends, who were either fans of the book and claimed that they "didn't get" the movie, or else, having not read the Nabokov, they felt there was no reason for them to bother with the Kubrick. Novels and films are mutually exclusive works of art – why would the correct reading of one necessarily depend on the experience of the other?
As a novel-to-film adaptation, comparing Liev Schreiber’s version of Everything is Illuminated to Jonathan Safran Foer’s seems like a waste of time. After all - and this should be known, right from the start – Schreiber only bothers to adapt about a third of the book, and of the material he does lift, he’s more or less faithful to its content, context and spirit. But it's something I can't seem to stop doing, nonetheless. The distillation of a messy, multi-threaded, self-referential, self-conciously whimsical, and honestly pretentious work of mostly-fiction into a neatly wrapped 90 minutes does exactly that: it distills. Schreiber lets the rough stuff mostly evaporate away, and what we’re left with is lucid but a little bland. It's refreshing on some level, but I’m not quite sure it hits the spot.
As Jonathan, a young American who travels to Ukraine to find the woman who may or not have saved his grandfather from certain death at the hands of Nazis, Elijah Wood is decked out in full-on nerdboat couture. His cheap black suit and tie, slicked-down tax assessor haircut, honking horn-rims, and –wait for it – black leather fanny pack, are all criminally hip. Schreiber clearly wants us to read Jonathan as hopelessly out-of-touch, but it's hard when his getup would fit right in on the hipster-patrolled streets of Brooklyn. There's a joke or two about the fanny pack in the book, but I'm fairly sure the rest of the costume is a movie-specific invention. And it's definitely a costume, anachronistic and simultaneously of-the-moment. Everything about Jonathan is formal, repressed, and tied to the past; Schreiber literalizes all of the above as standard-issue geek chic. Strapped into uniform, and yet projecting the ghostly calm of a Vermeer with his stunning aqua blue eyes and transluscent skin in varying shades of pink, Wood is at once emo-motivated (eMotivated?) and fundamentally detached. An ubernerd with a wink, he comes off as a cartoon.
Speaking of, it's a cartoonish destiny that one might imagine for Alex, the half-time narrator of Foer's book and the real protagonist of Schreiber's film. Alex and his grandfather are waiting for Jonathan (or, "Jon-fen", as Alex "dubs" him) at the train station when he arrives in Ukraine; they've made a family business out of shepherding "rich American Jews" on heritage excavations into the Ukrainian countryside. As written by Foer, Alex speaks a pidgeon English that seems half-based on what the character – a 20 year old who has spent just enough time away from Odessa to get the impression that it's "a city very much like Miami" – incorrectly perceives as the slang of American VIPs, complete with liberal misuse of words like "premium" and "repose".
He's played by Eugene Hutz, the leader of gypsy punks Gogol Bordello, in a pitch-perfect performance that Warner Independent could hang on Oscar campaign on if they really wanted to (and, in that respect, it's probably the film's best hope). One of the delights of Foer's novel is the realisation that though the narrative ostensibly intends to tread through 300 years of Foer family history, it's the bright, hungry Alex, far more than the stoic, self-centered Jonathan, who is fundamentally altered by his encounter with the past. That said, the book could do with less of Alex; the film would die without him. There's one brief moment in Illuminated where Alex hesitates to move after being punched several times in the face; the tension that he may not survive through the rest of the film was almost too much for me to take.
Why is that, exactly? To say that Elijah Wood is not up to carrying this thing would be an understatement, but, then again, he really shouldn't have to. The voice of Jonathan Safran Foer does not appear in the parts of the novel that Schreiber has translated; the present-day, road trip elements of the original story are narrated by Alex, with Jonathan along as his narrative device. Schreiber seems unsure how to handle this; his funding probably depended in large part on having Frodo in his film, but the character of Jonathan is an intentionally empty vessel in this story. It's impossible to talk about Elijah Wood's performance in this film, because he's essentially a space filler. It's one of the fundamental problems of adapting this particular novel: there's simply very little for the ostensible protagonist to do. I wish Schreiber had taken the skeleton of Jonathan's relationship with Alex and pulled it apart; the contrast between his matter of fact acknowlegement of sexual inexperience, and Alex's insistence that "many women want to be carnal" with him, for instance, seems to say much more about where the film is going than most of tropes Schreiber does take care to repeat.
It's Schreiber's first film as writer/director, and as such, it alternately overwhelms with style, and betrays its seams. He seems least confident as an editor: there are a few real bargain basement cuts in this film, mostly in terms of punctuations that wouldn't have been made by a filmmaker confident in the fact that the audience will get that A+B=C, without ever seeing the third shot. Most of these somehow involve Sammy Davis Jr, Jr, the Grandfather's "seeing eye bitch", who provokes sitcom-level hilarity throughout. At the same time, some of the images are truly breathtaking. At one point, Alex makes his way through a field of chest-high sunflowers, and it's almost as if the camera itself is gawking at the beauty before it. I haven't seen a more compelling image in a movie this year.
Still, there's an awful lot missing here. There's an unchecked whimsy to the procedings, from the Wes Anderson-esque art direction to the klezmer-cloaked score; it lacks the weight that the third act needs to activate the story's real substance. There's a moment where the tone is supposed to flip, but the transition feels shallow at best. I found myself stuck on just one thing as I left the theater: is it possible to be young, and Jewish, and Ameican, and serious about your faith and your heritage, in the era of HEEB Magazine? It's an accidental incidental that the film dances around, but never answers.