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Quirky road trip takes a melancholy turn in Everything Is Illuminated

Set to the teetering-toward-the-edge-of-lunacy strains of the Ukranian punk-Gypsy band Gogol Bordello, Everything Is Illuminated comes on like a Molotov cocktail. By its conclusion, though, it transforms into something far mellower. And along the way, it conveys Eastern Europeans' long tradition of combining rollicking absurdity and a melancholy so deep, it pulls you along helplessly like a dingy in a cruise ship's wake.

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Actor Liev Schreiber's first film as a director stands alongside freshman directorial efforts like Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate and Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's Big Night for its skill and modesty, undoubtedly informed by the subtlety actors revere in their own craft.

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Prim, somber New York writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) collects the ephemera of his family's life in plastic Baggies tacked to his bedroom wall. Dentures and used condoms, photographs and underwear comprise his bone yard of the banal.

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Jonathan's one hole in the family archive is his grandfather, who escaped with the help of a mystery woman from the Ukraine to America during World War II.

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Jonathan travels to Odessa where he hires two ad hoc travel guides, a cranky, bitter grandfather named Alex (Boris Leskin), and his loopy adult grandchild also named Alex (Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz) to help him investigate his past.

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From our first view of the Odessa clan, it's clear Jonathan is in for a bumpy ride.

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The grumpy, slaphappy family of anti-Semites bitch over their sorry lot shepherding rich American Jews back to their homeland. None of them can understand why Americans ensconced in milk and honey would ever want to return to this godforsaken reality. Though we are certainly meant to take Jonathan's point of view, Schreiber allows us to see how absurd Jonathan's quest must look to the Odessa-ites. Only those who have escaped to a better place can luxuriate in their own history, these world-weary natives suggest.

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Everything Is Illuminated opens on an irritatingly cute note when the two Alexes are introduced as sight gags and ridiculous caricatures. Alex speaks with the oddly grandiose and bumbled English of a 19th-century literary hero, but he is also desperately in love with American hip-hop culture. Outfitted in a Kangol hat and tracksuit, busting a move on a checkerboard-lit dancefloor, Alex longs for the distant aphrodisiac of American pop culture. He glorifies American blacks as heroes, naming his dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr, though he remains oblivious to his country's own underdogs, the Jews who were swallowed up by the Final Solution.

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Alex's grandfather looks like he'd be happiest 6 feet under. A terminal grump with a frosting of white facial stubble, Alex Sr. claims to be blind and takes Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., his "seeing eye bitch," with him everywhere.

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Schreiber initially plays the juxtaposition of the outlandish locals and the repressed Jonathan for laughs. In his funeral director's black suit and super-size eyeglasses that give him an expression of perpetual wonderment, Jonathan looks like a 1950s G-man or one of the faceless men in a Magritte painting.

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But the film's quirkiness has a darker side: The multiple references to impaired sight in Sammy Davis Jr., Alex Sr.'s feigned blindness, and Jonathan's Coke bottle-thick glasses suggest a shared myopia in characters unable to see where they came from and where they're going.

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Everything Is Illuminated's primary gift is its ability to convey the complexities of the Eastern European character — an outward self-preserving gruffness that holds back bursting reservoirs of emotion. Natives are stern but also sentimental, and the two Alexes warm to their guest despite his incomprehensible vegetarianism — so anathema to any region that has suffered extreme deprivation in the ordinary luxury department — and his habit of secreting boiled potatoes and hand lotion into his proverbial plastic bags as mementoes.

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But this odyssey to the past and the shtetl of Jonathan's grandfather's birth isn't just Jonathan's. It soon becomes clear that the elder Alex is on a journey of his own into his country's past. He keeps looking into his rearview at the moon, which follows him like his own conscience.

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The anti-Semitism that Alex and his grandfather initially seem to practice, referring to Jonathan as "the Jew," soon reveals an internalized fear with origins in the village of the damned that Jonathan's grandfather narrowly escaped.

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In an age when attention spans are short and nothing seems to last, Everything Is Illuminated is all the more profound as a rumination on the inescapable past that haunts and helps us and which Schreiber and Foer both contend must be resuscitated.

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But Everything Is Illuminated's biggest charm may be how unexpected it is. Schreiber's film feels like a first film made not by an American, but by a Russian. Rather than aiming to please, the film expects a certain patience on the viewer's part as it ambles and slowly shifts from an often forced quirkiness to a bone-deep melancholy. That change of tack proves worth waiting for.



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