If it had been released a year ago, Everything Is Illuminated would have probably been seen as the dramatic counterpoint to Borat. Both feature America-loving, Soviet-bloc protagonists with a penchant for misappropriating the English language and an ambivalent relationship with Jews. But where Borat uses language as a way to set his listeners off balance, Illuminated's Alex seems to instead have simply dragged its words into a configuration that makes him more comfortable, like bringing a footstool into reach. More generally, Borat puts a foreign character into normal situations to heighten their absurdity, Illuminated eventually reveals these oddities as only thinly exotic versions of typical indie-comedy quirks, which, as usual for this kind of movie, are soon pulled back for more affecting fare.
At heart, this is a road-trip movie structurally similar to Little Miss Sunshine or (more distantly) Y Tu Mama Tambien. Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a Jewish-American writer who travels to the Ukraine in search of his family's history. He hires Alex (and his grandfather, who professes to be blind despite all evidence to the contrary) to guide him from Odessa to the town of Trachimbrod, where Jonathan's grandfather grew up before traveling to America during WWII. The three travel in a tiny Russian car through broad Ukrainian landscapes, accompanied by the grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch," a deranged pound-puppy named Sammy Davis Junior Jr.
If this sounds precious, it's no doubt far less so than the original novel, in which author Jonathan Safran Foer inserts himself as his own character, plays with multiple timelines, and writes partly in a magical-realist style--although, having read his Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I suspect it is less "magical-realist" and more "hipster-pretentious." One of the more enjoyable parts of the film adaptation is that it cuts the literary fiction flourishes and makes "Jonathan Safran Foer" just another character, which is much more interesting than a walking reminder of the author's cleverness.
Nevertheless, during the mandatory indie-comedy roadtrip, Illuminated slowly sheds itself of the kind of easy targets derived from culture-shock and "quirky" characters, and begins to pick at the underlying threads of discontent in Alex's family (helped in large part by the likable presence of Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz), as well as the uncomfortable history of Jonathan's grandfather. It would be easy to criticize this as a transition from one cliched genre to another--that of the belabored Holocaust film--but to do so is to ignore that these cliches are most frustrating when they're done poorly, or half-heartedly. Illuminated handles both its slapstick and its pathos with competence, if not greatness, and the transition is handled gracefully enough so as not to be jarring. In the end, I found it to be a sweetly touching movie--surprisingly so, considering its pedigree.