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Photograph by Neil Davidson

Old-Country Tour: Alex (Eugene Hutz, right) helps Jonathan (Elijah Wood) find his way through the Ukraine.

Forever Amber

Frodo goes on a quirky odyssey to the Old Country in 'Everything Is Illuminated'

By Richard von Busack

SPECKLIKE insects trapped in amber are displayed during the titles of Everything Is Illuminated, actor Liev Schreiber's first film as director. Symbolizing novelist Jonathan Safran Foer's fascination for a past that never changes, the bugs-in-honey-colored jewelry (a common souvenir from Eastern Europe) is a key to a riddle in the past. A character called "Jonathan Safran Foer" heads to the Old Country to visit his grandparents' shtetl. "Foer" (Elijah Wood) is a far from intrepid traveler. The former Frodo's glassy gaze is slightly magnified by spectacles. Above the nose, Wood is just as last seen in Sin City, in which he played a cannibal maniac. He has the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. Foer, a buttoned-up, powder-white, silent little Pee-wee Herman, is escorted on his Ukrainian travels by a family of professional Yank-wranglers.

Alex (Eugene Hutz), Odessa's answer to Vanilla Ice, is as friendly a hip-hop-loving Americaphile as ever wore a Kangol beanie. By contrast, his grumpy grandfather (Boris Leskin) doesn't care for much of anything. The one word Grandpa says that Foer can understand is "zhid" (Jew). He doesn't like them. Since the old man affects blindness, even if he's a professional driver, the three in this fellowship take along Grandpa's "seeing-eye" dog—a snarling little cur named "Sammy Davis Junior Jr." Bonding ensues.

Schreiber is an acerbic, sometimes even hostile actor—a blocked, fuming Laertes in the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, and the dislikable Raymond Shaw in Jonathan Demme's version of The Manchurian Candidate. It's odd that he ended up making such a sentimental movie. He has managed to come up with some imagery that works—such as dentures sitting in a glass of water, looking like the Cheshire cat's grin; a field of off-colored sunflowers, like an old-fashioned chromo.

The quirk factor in this Holocaust-memory piece is high. It is like a sketch that won't end, in which the main part of the humor is young Alex's Yakov Smirnoff˝style malapropisms. The trouble with Everything Is Illuminated is that everything isn't. We get explanations spelled out for some of the character's quirks, such as Foer's compulsion to collect bits of garbage and debris in plastic bags. The movie leaves questions that must have partisans of Foer's novel answering, "Read the book." How could a nervous, ducky character like Foer go all the way to the Ukraine without doing some research first? How could it be that the survivors of a village had never looked in on the village before? (We remember how many descendents of the survivors of Schindler's Jews crowded the screen in the last shot of the Spielberg film: Wouldn't the village have got that kind of traffic?)

The happiest part of the film, though, is Hutz, a musician in an ensemble called Gypsy Bordello. While Alex's language-mangling dialect humor doesn't bear requoting, the tour guide has the loose grin and unflappable good humor we expect from old-time cowboys in movies. Go far enough East and you hit the West.

Everything Is Illuminated (PG-13; 105 min.), directed and written by Liev Schreiber, based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer, photographed by Matthew Libatique and starring Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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