If a movie has two guys who could not be more different going on a difficult journey and one of them has a funny accent, a quirky dog, and a grumpy grandfather, you might expect slapstick and confrontations and misunderstandings and maybe some redemption, and you’d be right. But the last thing you might expect is grace, and yet somehow first-time writer-director Liev Shreiber, adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed book, achieves, with breathtaking delicacy and tenderness.
Jonathan (the main character has the name of the novel’s author), played by Elijah Wood, is a very quiet young man who is fixated on holding on to the past. Literally. He takes and preserves and labels everything he can hold on to, covering a wall with his artifacts and treasures as though he was a police detective trying to solve a complicated murder case. Or someone trying to assemble an intricate jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box as a guide. Jonathan wears suit and tie and his eyes seem to disappear behind big round glasses. He is a vegetarian.
Jonathan has arranged for a guide for a trip to Ukraine with Heritage Tours, specializing in helping American Jews find their roots. But Heritage Tours is just Alex (Eugene Hutz), his father, his grandfather, and their dog. And Alex has no expertise or interest in the Jewish heritage or any other history of Ukraine or indeed in Ukraine at all. His family has contempt for the rich Americans who try to understand themselves better by coming to Ukraine, but they are happy to profit from what they see as something between folly and insanity.
Alex is interested only in the future, and the only culture he cares about is American. He dresses like a rapper and goes clubbing. But he’s a little out of date, explaining that “I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson.” He has never heard of vegetarians and, when it is explained to him, he still can’t quite grasp it.
The driver is the grandfather, who insists that he cannot see, and brings along a “seeing-eye” dog named “Sammy Davis Junior Junior.” Alex is translator and guide.
One of Jonathan’s cherished artifacts is an insect preserved in amber, and that image resonates with much of that unfolds. Jonathan, the quiet, buttoned-down young man who looks like his tie stays pulled tightly around his neck even when he sleeps and showers, who documents and labels and researches as a way of feeling in control, wants to find the woman who, according to family lore, protected his late grandfather from the Nazis. But that history, that story, that memory, even the town where it happened all seem to have evaporated. The town is not on any map and no one they meet has heard of it. Is Jonathan, so dedicated to the kinds of facts he can pin to his wall, chasing a myth?
The four travelers (including SD Jr. Jr.) meet a woman who is even more devoted to historical artifacts than Jonathan. She is, herself, all but preserved in amber, the reponsitory of a heavy history. The stories she tells transform the way Jonathan, Alex, and the grandfather see their own history and the way they see themselves. Characters learn to embrace history and to let it go to move on into the future.
Shreiber is a distinguished actor in material ranging from Shakespeare to the Scream series and he understands how to get and convey sensitive and complex performances from his performers. Wood (best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy) shows us that underneath the shy and proper exterior, Jonathan is a person of depth and humor. And newcomer (and Ukrainian-born) Eugene Hutz shows us that underneath the bravado and bizarre malapropisms, Alex has some hope and some principles. Theirs is a journey well worth taking.
Parents should know that this movie has references to (mostly offscreen) violence, including Holocaust-related genocide. A young man is punched by his father and grandfather. (Spoiler alert) A character commits suicide. Characters drink and smoke and use some crude language, including sexual references and ethnic insults. A strength of the movie is its exploration of the way relationships can transcend cultural differences and the importance of understanding our differences and similarities.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Jonathan and Alex were alike and how they were different. Why was Jonathan so interested in the past and Alex so uninterested? How does that relate to Jonathan’s being so reserved and Alex’s being so outgoing? How were the two grandfathers alike in the way they treated the past?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Shoah, The Diary of Anne Frank, Paperclips, and The Nasty Girl. They should also visit The United States Holocaust Museum, especially the collection of personal histories.