- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

The young novelist Jonathan Safran Foer made a spectacle of verbal clowning and hyperbolic overstatement from the outset of “Everything Is Illuminated,” his 2002 debut novel, but a thoroughly beguiled reading public made Mr. Foer a literary sensation at age 25.

It’s unlikely that Liev Schreiber’s austere, fitfully droll movie version will rival the literary splash. One of the more engaging and versatile movie actors of the past decade, Mr. Schreiber has confined himself to a largely present-tense digest of Mr. Foer’s picaresque blend of vaudeville and cultural meditation.

The book devoted many chapters to evocations of a distant, seriocomic past occupied by European Jews of the late 18th century. Mr. Schreiber keeps his film directing debut in the realm of the compact, affordable and contemporary.

The cinematic “Illuminated” concentrates on the quixotic pilgrimage of a fictionalized Jonathan Foer, embodied by Elijah Wood as a kind of pint-sized edition of an undergraduate Clark Kent. The obsessive, timorous archivist of his own Jewish immigrant family, Jonathan travels from New York to Ukraine in hope of confirming the identity of a villager who helped his late grandfather elude Nazi slaughter during the German invasion in 1941.

Jonathan’s guide is an aspiring, Americanized hustler-hipster named Alex Perchov (Eugene Hutz in a distinctive and amusing screen debut), who serves as malapropic translator and eventual soul mate. Alex accompanies his client in a battered Trabant driven by a fuming, anti-Semitic Grandpa Perchov (Boris Leskin), whose bark proves worse than his bite. This development is anticipated in his pet dog, a border collie called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, also along for the ride and a source of apprehension in Jonathan.

In the book, a good deal of narration was entrusted to Alex in order to show off Mr. Foer’s virtuosity at dialect humor and “performance prose.” (An Alex sampler from the novel: “I am burdened to recite my good appearance. I am unequivocally tall. … I have handsome hairs, which are split in the middle. This is because mother used to split them on the side when I was a boy, and to spleen her I split them in the middle.”)

Alex’s idiom is preferable in the smaller, closer-to-throwaway doses that Mr. Schreiber appropriates for the movie. Mr. Hutz has a rangy, rawboned physicality that contrasts humorously with Mr. Wood’s uptight twerpiness. Alex now has an immediacy that Mr. Foer could never simulate on the page, where he was an ostentatious literary gag.

It’s curiously effective to find Elijah Wood on another ring quest here, reduced in scale from Tolkien antiquity. The bleak Ukrainian cityscapes and landscapes evoked by Mr. Foer are duplicated in and around Prague by the film company, which sustains the illusion of a place that might have been eerily depopulated and abandoned.

Production designer Mark Geraghty scores an illustrative triumph with the enchanted cottage attributed to Laryssa Lauret as the near-mystical benefactor Jonathan is seeking. Surrounded by sunflowers and billowing lines of laundry, it’s an homage to the great Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko.

The dwelling’s singularity as a folk museum and act of remembrance is kind of deflated by the subsequent revelation that the lost village of Trachimbrod was remembered well enough in those parts to merit a postwar memorial. The author can be detected miscalculating his own epiphanies.

Strictly an art-house attraction, “Everything Is Illuminated” is not likely to catch fire commercially, but Liev Schreiber’s distillation demonstrates how travel-worthy the novel remains when shorn of literary overgrowth.

**1/2

TITLE: “Everything Is Illuminated”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence and profanity and comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Liev Schreiber. Screenplay by Mr. Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Cinematography by Matthew Libatique. Production design by Mark Geraghty. Costume design by Michael Clancy. Animal trainers: Boone Narr and David Allsberry. Music by Paul Cantelan.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: www.everythingisilluminatedmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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