In 2001, Jonathan Safran Foer made an astounding literary debut. “A Very Rigid Search,” published by The New Yorker, was his hilarious, heartbreaking account of an attempt by a young American man (named, cheekily, Jonathan Safran Foer) to find a Ukrainian woman who had saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Soon after, he published his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, a longer version of same. Foer was 24, but his book felt like the work of a much older man: Astonishing in its intellectual complexity and profound in its depth of feeling, it somehow managed — without a flinch — to look the atrocities of the Holocaust squarely in the face.
Now it’s also a film. It comes via Liev Schreiber, the beloved New York stage actor who is perhaps best known in film for his roles in the Scream trilogy. That Schreiber (and not, say, Spielberg) set his sights on Everything Is Illuminated was cause for hope. Even if it was his first take at writing and directing, it was reasonable to expect something committed, intelligent, and in tune with the music of the novel. But it isn’t. The film certainly has strengths, including gorgeous art direction and clever humor, but its essence is empty. Schreiber has made a couple of critical changes that sap the material of its soul.
The film opens with Jonathan, played by Elijah Wood in a pair of humongous glasses and a black suit, at the bedside of his grandmother. Lily-skinned, owlish, and preternaturally still, Jonathan is a pair of eyes, unblinking. His grandmother hands him a weathered photograph and an amber pendant, relics of his grandfather’s early years in Ukraine, and Jonathan’s quest is born. He travels to the former Soviet Republic to find Augustine, the woman in the photograph, and to thank her for saving his grandfather’s life.
Thus begins the “very rigid search,” a term coined by Alex (Eugene Hutz), Jonathan’s Ukrainian interpreter, a gangly, self-styled hip-hop gangsta (read: clown) in head-to-foot Adidas and Kangol. In a car driven by his own grandfather (Boris Leskin), a hysterically blind eighty-year-old with a deranged “seeing-eye-bitch” named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Alex attempts to guide Jonathan to Trachimbrod, Jonathan’s ancestral village. If these details weren’t so funny (and Schreiber plays them to the giddy hilt), they would be cloying, but as it is, we’re treated here to the finest thirty minutes in the film. Hutz is perfect as Alex, a funky mixture of earnestness and bravado, and Leskin sails as the beleaguered grandfather, perennially pissed, who refers to Jonathan as “the Jew.” Three men and a border collie: It’s hilarious.
It’s also beautiful. Schreiber has an excellent feel for music and for scene. On the soundtrack, he mixes Old World klezmer and lilting fiddle with the rollicking gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, the New York-based Slavic-rock band fronted by Hutz. (Once you hear “Start Wearing Purple,” the song that runs behind the closing credits, you’ll probably have to buy the album.) For the art direction, Schreiber seems to have taken his cue from René Magritte, with a recurring trope of the back of Jonathan’s torso, darkly suited, cutting a crisp figure against the bright blue sky. The result feels both fresh and informed by history, which is as it should be: The story is about a new generation haunted by, and attempting to come to terms with, its past.
But where’s the soul? Schreiber eliminated over half the book, starting with the flashbacks. The novel runs in two streams, present and past, and the past — the story of Trachimbrod from the 18th century on — is rich with folklore and fantasy, a Yiddishe magical realism inherited from Isaac Bashevis Singer and the “Wise Men of Chelm” stories. These segments give the novel its depth, animating the bustling, dramatic, and occasionally ass-backwards Jewish village that the Nazis later leveled. In the movie, we get nothing of Trachimbrod, so we can’t see what was lost. Worse, Schreiber alters the identities of the two tragic figures, Augustine and Alex’s grandfather, to the point of implausibility. Certain essential points of logic are abandoned, as though critical facts in the novel weren’t important. And to what end? To make the tragedy easier to bear?
There’s nothing wrong with altering a novel for a film adaptation, but Schreiber’s edits gut the story of its power and punch. His film is strong on comedy and farce, enjoyable as a quirky-friendship gag, but it fails in its attempt at tragedy. In the latter half, when sentiment begins its flaccid reign, the mood is often thin and false, relying too heavily on music for pathos. Augustine, for example, is too young and too accessible: She is supposed to be remote and lost, plunged into a depth from which she is just barely, fleetingly, extracted. But, like the film, she doesn’t go nearly as deep as she should. Schreiber, unlike Foer, seems to have balked in the face of horror.