So begins the on-screen story of "Everything is Illuminated," Liev Shreiber's film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's much acclaimed debut novel by the same name. While Foer's novel takes the reader on a hoopla of narrative threads full of word plays, lost-in-translation charm, and wondrous tales of a town called Trachtimbrod, Shreiber's adaptation shucks those tales for the more goal-driven drama of finding a woman in the thick of post-communist Ukraine and its historic amnesia.
No quest is complete without a guide, and in this case, a translator. Lucky for Jonathan (Elijah Wood), it appears that a Ukrainian family has figured out how to get rich off Jews looking for their roots by starting a company called Heritage Tours. Enter Alex Perchov (Eugene Hutz), a young man who helps his father run the business. Alex and his grandfather (Boris Leskin) are roped into being the ones to drive the American Jew. Alex doesn't drive, so that puts his aging grandfather behind the wheel, half-blind, half-aware, and riddled with all sorts of emotions regarding the very journey itself. All of this seems lost on Alex, who bling blings his way through Ukraine's nouveau-hip scene and slowly turns into a bit of a Dr. Pangloss to Jonathan's Candide. Alex breakdances from the neon-lit floors of Kiev's nightclubs to the randy hotel backrooms of a lost landscape, all along feeding his hell-bent desire to make it to America to pick up babes. Where he finds himself, instead, is face to face with the recesses of his grandfather's untold tales.
Jonathan is thus catapulted into a surprising journey, an unwitting pilgrimage. So unwitting, he is rendered relatively speechless throughout the trip. Beyond the impossible task of remaining vegetarian in off-road Ukrainian motels--or being the lust object of the tour guide's "seeing eye bitch," a dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.--he is met with a deeper internal challenge. He must come to terms with himself in ways he did not intend nor imagine would fit into a little plastic bag like the rest of his retrievals.
With offbeat humor, borrowed dialogue from the novel, and a lively soundtrack, the soul-searching journey creates an unlikely and absurd bond between all four characters (including Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.), who are squished for most of the film in an appropriately selected time capsule, the communist king of the road--a powder-blue Trabant. They navigate the impossible roads of the memory superhighway in search of Augustine. Upon finding her, we travel back to an unreliable, fragile, and tentative place, surrounded by glorious sunflowers. This image, like any other tucked away in memories and story, may never have happened.