Actor Liev Schreiber turns to directing in Everything is Illuminated, a road trip picture that seems more affecting than it ultimately is.
Starring Elijah Wood (Sin City) this adaptation of a 2002 novel definitely makes good use of the boyish actor's eyes, and has a creative visual pallette. But, the melodrama hardly stands on solid ground, as the story is bogged down and rather incoherent in conveying its personal, heartfelt message.
Wood's bespectacled Jonathan isn't your ordinary collector with his grandmother's false teeth on his bedroom wall, in addition to other family mementos. A photo of his grandfather with an unknown woman Augusta from 1940's Ukraine has him off with Heritage Tours who specialize in helping wealthy Jews track down their deceased relatives.
This ancestral jaunt into the Holocaust has Jonathan aided by young adult Alex Jr. (Eugene Hutz) and his grandpa, Alex Sr. (Boris Leskin). Schreiber does well early on from the communication gap between Jonathan and Alex Jr., as Hutz is easily the most amusing sidekick of a character especially in some early narration.
Unfortunately, the escapades of this trio begins to drag and the revelations leading to an unexpected high point isn't a satisfying catharsis. Everything is Illuminated can't flesh out its expository source framework and the result isn't viewer friendly. Wood continues to shed his Frodo Baggins image, but can't make Jonathan interesting. His obsessive nature is used more to advance the plot than to give meaning to an odd person who loves to put items in ziploc bags. Leskin is well-suited as the uptight codger, but like the others, there's little beyond the surface. And, the elements aren't there for their interactions to stimulate much emotion.
In working diligently to pare down the novel into a reasonable running time, Schreiber struggles to let the witty, absurdist moments blossom into a haunting poignancy. A little too much happenstance and gaps atrophies a nostalgic snap shot of history into something too opaque and detached.