Utterly unfilmable novels don’t scare some people—a would-be Cronenberg after a fashion, actor-turned- Yiddishe-auteur Liev Schreiber has fashioned a serviceable, small-boned adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s inherently defiant, voice-mottled debut book, lean and silly and modest. Not only is Foer’s language necessarily dropped from the loop—apart from the inevitable narration, giving us a molecular taste of the Ukrainian protagonist’s chaotic consumer English—but so is the mysterious no-man’s-land between page and reader, where absurdist ideas are not visualized but can be seen nonetheless. Schreiber jettisons the novel’s juicy mock-folk shtetl legends and focuses on the “very rigid search” of young American neurotic Foer (Elijah Wood) for the Slavic woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Wood’s Foer is an anemic straight-man caricature (hardly the precocious nebbish Foer suggested himself to be), and so texture is provided by Eugene Hutz (of Gogol Bordello) as Alex, Foer’s Odessa hipster guide, and grizzled Russian vet Boris Leskin, as Alex’s irascible, anti-Semitic, guilt-riddled grandfather.
What tale there is left to tell is reduced to driving (through the Czech Republic) and mildly comic culture clash conversation—until the three-man convoy reaches the extinct village where Foer’s ancestral treasure lies half buried, waiting for rediscovery. Schreiber relies on relentless soundtrack oompah-pah to make the jokes seem like jokes—until the sniffly climax. (Schreiber, like many actor-directors, is indulgent of”heavy” moments of staring and gesture that actually have no weight at all.) Still, Foer’s ironic ideas have a lovely roundness to them, and somehow the film achieves Holocaust-fiction balance without much ado or melodrama. It may be substantially less ambitious than its source material, but that may be what saves it from implosion.