Dir: Liev Schreiber. US.2005. 102mins.
The fine US actor LievSchreiber makes his directorial debut on his own ambitious adaptation of whatis perhaps an unfilmable book - Jonathan Safran Foer's brilliant first novel EverythingIs Illuminated. It's a brave attempt, but only partially successful, andcritics will compare it unfavourably with the very recent (2001) andwidely-admired source material.
The film is a curio - a USproduction which is largely in the Russian language and which deals with theongoing impact of the Holocaust on contemporary Ukraine and surviving familiesin the US. Its best shot at making a dent in the specialized box office is withsmart young audiences who might embrace its irreverent tone and language. Onthe other hand, they are the very audiences who might feel sermonized to duringthe sombre final half hour which deals exclusively with the Nazi atrocities.
Festivals slots in Veniceand Toronto will lend prestige, but it will be a tough sell in the mercilessdomestic specialised marketplace (it opens in the US on Sept 16) and ininternational territories where its hybrid US independent/foreign-languagestatus might prove doubly challenging.
Schreiber makes some wisechoices, notably in the triumphant casting of Eugene Hutz as Alexander Perchov,a twentysomething Ukrainian tour guide, and Boris Leskin as his pugnacious,anti-semitic grandfather. He also manages to incorporate the hilariouslyfractured, malapropism-strewn English which Alex uses to tell the story.
The film's focus is on thebook's modern-day narrative about introverted young Jewish writer JonathanSafran Foer (played by Elijah Wood) and his visit the Ukraine to find out moreabout the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust.
He hires Alex and hisgrandfather's opportunistic family tour company Heritage Touring to drive himaround in an effort to locate Trachimbrod, the shtetl where his grandfather wasborn and of which there is no trace on any map. Heritage makes most of itsmoney from giving tours to rich Jewish Americans, Alex tells us.
Alex and Grandfather andtheir belligerent dog Sammy Davis Jr Jr meet Jonathan (or "Jonfen" as Alex dubshim) on his arrival and proceed on a series of comic misadventures on the roadbefore they finally discover an old woman, Lista (Laryssa Lauret), whoilluminates them as to the fate of Trachimbrod.
It's in the final stretchthat Schreiber loses, nay abandons, the wry tone which he has so effectivelymaintained to that point. Unlike eastern European locals like Kusturica andTanovic, for example, who would maintain a sardonic tenor amid the mayhem (see Undergroundand No Man's Land), Schreiber assumes a wide-eyed reverence throughoutLista's shocking revelations about the destruction of the shtetl by the Nazis.
That the film surrenders toearnest solemnity as soon as the "illumination" begins, is doubly disappointingsince it is the humour right through to the end of Safran Foer's book whichmakes it so affecting.
No doubt for budgetaryreasons, Schreiber barely touches on the passages in the book in which SafranFoer unveils the colourful evolution of Trachimbrod from 1791 to its demise in1941. By just touching on that at the end of the film, much of the richresonance of the tragedy is lost.
Wood is okay as theblank-faced Safran Foer, but Hutz, a Ukrainian punk star with no previousacting experience, steals the show as the strutting America-loving Alex.
Big Beach Productions
Warner Independent Pictures
Warner Bros Pictures International
from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer