Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated

Rated 4.0

Adapted from a contemporary American novel but filmed partly in the Czech Republic, Everything Is Illuminated is a beguiling combination of the indie road movie and absurdist tragicomedy in a distinctly East European mode.

American indie actor Liev Schreiber’s debut as writer-director limits itself to the central incident from Jonathan Safran Foer’s teeming 2002 novel, but the onscreen results are both engaging and provocative even as the action makes multi-layered transitions from the oddball comedy of the first half of the story to the haunted history of the final reels.

Elijah Wood, the lone name-actor in the cast, plays the novelist’s namesake (a.k.a. The Collector), a bespectacled, baby-faced youth who collects relics from his Jewish ancestors’ lives and undertakes a journey to the Ukrainean village where his grandfather eluded the Holocaust in 1942. The journey brings him into the company of Alex (Eugene Hutz), a rambunctious, half-Americanized tour guide, and his mysteriously ill-tempered grandfather (Boris Leskin), also named Alex, who serves as the tour’s driver even though he claims to be blind.

Alex’s goofy enthusiasm for American pop culture in general and hip-hop in particular and his amusingly disjointed English vocabulary (in dialogue and voiceovers alike) make him an especially appealing figure in Jonathan’s meandering trek, and when it turns out that both of the Alexes are intent on quests of their own, Jonathan and Alex become picaresque partners on parallel tracks, and the cantankerous grandfather emerges as the man with the biggest secret of all, which hurls him toward illumination of an enigmatically destructive sort.

Hutz’s Alex proves the most durable of the film’s assorted dark-comic spirits. Schreiber’s directorial style yearns for the ancient roots of European picaresque, but it is Hutz’s wistful, half-smile humor that provides the film with its best route to that destination.