Jonathan, the protagonist in “Everything Is Illuminated,” is an odd, quiet young man whose large Hobbity eyes (they are the eyes of Elijah Wood) are made larger by enormous spectacles. He wears a suit and tie at all times, even when he is sleeping outdoors in a field, and his hair is slicked nerdily. He compulsively saves mementos of everything, keeping them in Ziploc bags and tacking them up on the walls of his home.
It’s this desire to document his experiences in the world that leads him to the Ukraine, his grandfather’s homeland before fleeing the Nazis and coming to America. A woman named Augustine — all Jonathan has is a first name and a photograph — helped his grandfather make the escape, and Jonathan wants to find her and thank her.
To that end, he enlists the services of Heritage Tours, an Odessa-based business that specializes in helping American Jews find their dead ancestors. Our narrator, Alex (Eugene Hutz), is the 20-ish son of the proprietor. Alex dresses like an American hip-hop thug and apparently learned English from the wild-and-crazy Festrunk Brothers on “Saturday Night Live.” (“Many girls want to be carnal with me because I am such a premium dancer,” he says.) He is enlisted, with his grandfather (Boris Leskin) and their dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (yes, Jr. Jr.), to drive Jonathan around the countryside in search of this Augustine woman.
That’s the setup for this contemplative, bittersweet film, as much a sublime comedy as it is a drama about the urgency of understanding and learning from one’s past. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, it was adapted and directed by the actor Liev Schreiber, who makes an impressive debut in both capacities.
There is much to admire in the film’s strange sense of humor, from Alex’s bizarrely broken English, to Grandfather’s insistence that he is blind despite all evidence to the contrary (he’s the one who drives the Heritage Tours vehicle), to the quaint, fractured little Ukrainian places the travelers visit. But the purpose of the mission is serious, and it reveals things about the Ukraine’s involvement in the Holocaust that even Alex, who is as Ukrainian as they come, didn’t know.
Eugene Hutz is, from what I read, the lead singer in a “gypsy punk” band, whatever that means, with no prior acting experience — but you wouldn’t guess it from his performance, which is jaunty and effervescent and utterly lacking in self-consciousness.
Elijah Wood, meanwhile, is earnestly calm as Jonathan, his face registering interest in what’s going on, but seldom more than that. It’s an effective method for a while, as it fits the film’s generally low-key demeanor — there are many long shots of nothing more than a Ukrainian countryside accompanied by authentic-sounding music — but in the end it backfires. Wood’s face barely shows the emotional strength of the finale (which is startling enough to be a little heavy-handed, even), and his words only suggest it.
That said, Wood has a sort of magnetism throughout the film: Jonathan is such a fish out of water that watching him trace his roots is perpetually interesting. Watching Alex is interesting, too, but for the opposite reason — he’s free-wheeling and off-center. Together, they comprise a pair (and a movie) that is absolutely premium.
B+ (1 hr., 46 min.; )