It must be tiresome to read yet another review trumpeting the news that a movie is not as good as the book on which it's based, and that the medium rarely does justice to narrative loop-de-loops or to characters' labyrinthine inner lives. After all, film and literature are different media, a movie ought to be judged on its own merits, and most of the film's audience won't even have heard of the book, right? Why not stick to what's onscreen?
Love to. The problem is that many adaptations make little sense if you're unfamiliar with their source. I don't mean narrative sense—although that can be an issue, too. I mean that you watch the movie and have no clue why it was even made. Then you pick up the book, read a few pages, and say, "Aha! That's what it's about!"
You need to hit the books to figure out what's going on in two unsatisfying new movies, Everything Is Illuminated (Warner Independent Pictures) and Thumbsucker (Sony Pictures Classics). The first and far more successful is a scaled-down, relatively linear adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's celebrated collage of mangled English first-person narrative and Isaac Bashevis Singer-like folk tale (with a showy philosophical undercurrent). The novel is overamped and smart-alecky, but Foer's extreme cleverness (and exquisite ear for goofy malaprops) carries you along until his passion blindsides you. Born in 1977, he uses every arrow in his quiver, every color on his palette, every string on his klezmer violin to summon a dead and buried past into the living present.
For his directing and screenwriting debut, the actor Liev Schreiber prudently tears off only a modest hunk of Foer's material. But I'm not sure the words "prudent" and "Foer" belong in the same sentence, let alone in the same movie. A hyperserious actor with an unusually cerebral presence (he played Hamlet at New York's Public Theater and tries to bring out the Hamlet in even his dumb characters), Schreiber has ditched the shtetl flashbacks and homed in on the modern-day part of the novel, the one with the obvious Holocaust hook. And he has managed to hack a straight path to Foer's big themes.
The film begins as a bouncy odyssey through the Ukrainian (in fact Czech) countryside narrated by a hip-hop-obsessed young stud named Alex, played—in his auspicious acting debut—by the Ukrainian-American punk musician Eugene Hutz. (His group is called Gogol Bordello, and sounds just like its name.) Alex lives in Odessa and helps to run a family company that drives rich Jews around Ukraine in search of their lost heritage. The client this time is one Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood), who's determined to locate a village called Trachimbrod and a woman he thinks saved his late grandfather from the Nazis. The car's driver is Alex's dyspeptic grandfather, also named Alex (Boris Leskin)—an anti-Semite with a transparently guilty conscience. Just what did you do in the war, granddaddy?
Much of Everything Is Illuminated consists of these three men in a battered old car, plus a manic mutt named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior after the grandfather's favorite American entertainer. The mixture of deadpan and linguistic slapstick in Alex's attempts to engage Foer is funnier and less predictable than in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law: The Eastern European's bad (but ambitious) English is strangely resonant, and his combination of nouveau-capitalist hustle and naiveté makes him seem like an authentic new archetype.
But there isn't enough drama here to sustain an entire film, and Schreiber's direction is relentlessly coy. He loves marooning objects or people in the center of symmetrical frames—like Wes Anderson, only without Anderson's eye for the asymmetrical flourish. Schreiber even resorts, God help us, to dog reaction shots. That lusty klezmer soundtrack made me smile for about half an hour—until I realized that it was ironing out the dissonances, killing the unease we ought to feel in this deceptively verdant landscape. Then I began to wish it were hunting season on klezmer bands.
There's nothing wrong with Elijah Wood's Foer except that he's not a dramatic character. He wears huge glasses and dark suits and walks like a robot—or one of the Men in Black. In the novel, the character of Foer is a writer whose tales of life in Trachimbrod color the present-day story—and are colored by it in turn. This Foer has no inner world that we can experience. He calls himself "a collector" and methodically bags and tags every item that will later bring the moment back—a piece of boiled potato, a grasshopper, a handful of soil. His compulsion does dovetail beautifully with what he finds at the end of his journey: an old woman (Laryssa Lauret) who is also a collector, except on a much vaster scale. Her boxes contain the history and culture—and the day-to-day life—of a place and people long extinct.
What a payoff this might have been, even with the movie's reduced scope! The motif of collection gestures toward so many of the great themes: the elusiveness of memory and, thus, history (see Kundera, Milan); the necessity of storytelling—of sifting through and distilling and bringing the imagination to bear on one's past. But Schreiber isn't able to inject these ideas into our bloodstream, so the movie remains abstract and rather closed. When the eponymous illumination comes and a secret is revealed—and, by the way, it's a radically different secret than the novel's—it's horrific but confusing, and surprisingly banal.
Everything Is Illuminated is not a fiasco, but in some ways I'd have preferred a fiasco—something overreaching and inchoate instead of this self-consciously artistic mood piece. The power of Foer's novel is less in its incidents than in its author's struggle to get it all down. It would have been a perfect springboard for Charlie Kaufman, who wasted his meta-narrative contortions on the much less fertile The Orchid Thief. Kaufman proved in Adaptation that he could tell a story about storytelling and in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that he could do it with heart. What he might have made of Jonathan Safran Foer ...
Oh, well; there's always Philip Roth.
Walter Kirn's novel Thumbsucker has, by design, nothing of the sprawl and overambition of Everything Is Illuminated. (A witty, revved-up book critic, Kirn doesn't have much use for Foer's acrobatic exhibitionism.) I think his Up in the Air is the more original and exhilarating achievement (until the letdown on the last page), but Thumbsucker might have made an acidly funny movie, a blessed antidote to all those overearnest, Sundance-sponsored coming-of-age pictures we've grown to dread. But this treatment—written and directed by Mike Mills—is a miracle of maladaptation: a draggy, unfocused, humanist movie. I don't know what anyone who hasn't read the novel will make of it.
The book is about a suburban kid named Justin who's madly in love with his sexy mom and can't get his thumb out of his mouth. He leaps from obsession to obsession to replace it (and her): a leftist cutie his own age; alcohol and pot; Ritalin and the debate team; and even fly-fishing with his overpoweringly insensitive dad (who is always stopping the car to pick up dead animal carcasses to use as bait). Justin ends up finding religion and heading off to New York to proselytize—with his thumb still in his mouth.
Mills essentially throws out the second half of the book, which kills the joke of Justin's serial obsessions—the joke that holds the whole thing together. He kills a lot of other jokes, too—including one of my favorites, in which Justin destroys the confidence of his New Agey dentist, one of his many mentors, by defacing the man's "power animal." His soundtrack uses Polyphonic Spree for semi-ironic uplift and Elliott Smith for introspection (and hopelessness) without making the two visions of reality collide and spark.
Mills is good with actors, though, which counts for a lot. As Justin, Lou Pucci has a fine presence—the hurt is right on the surface, but not too insistent. Vince Vaughn is a marvel as his insecure debate coach, his big body shrinking instead of (as usual) overfilling the space; Benjamin Bratt has the right battered narcissism as a TV stud; and Keanu Reeves (as the dentist) proves that his monotonic delivery can be hilariously effective in the right (insane) part. A young actress named Kelli Garner is wonderfully tremulous and alive (although her character has been mucked with and doesn't quite track). It's too bad Mills does so little with the great Vincent D'Onofrio as the dad and Tilda Swinton (a co-executive producer) as the mom. He's too present; she's not present (or eroticized) enough. The parents are the casualties of Mills' misplaced sincerity, which makes Thumbsucker the quintessential misadapted head-scratcher.