Road movies are more about journeys than destinations, more about insights picked up along the way than about ultimate grand revelations. With his puzzled, inquisitive face, which looks like it could at any moment twitch with fear or weeping, Elijah Wood makes for an unusually effective road-movie protagonist. But the same qualities that served him so well in The Lord Of The Rings, itself a kind of epic road movie, fail him in Everything Is Illuminated, largely because there doesn't appear to be much of a character behind those expressions. It's not really Wood's fault. With his shellacked hair and too-small Edward Gorey suit, he's simply keeping everything anyone needs to know about his character on the surface, just like every other aspect of Liev Schreiber's stiff, lumbering adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel. Never mind the title; shining a light anywhere just reveals more of what's already been revealed.
Coming from an actor-turned-director as expressive and thoughtful as Schreiber, the relentlessly formal approach seems almost self-consciously perverse. But the parts of Foer's lively novel that didn't get cut in the script stage have died on the way to the screen. To be fair, it's not an easy novel to adapt; Foer's book mixes a fanciful history of a Ukrainian shtetl with the search of a protagonist (named "Jonathan Safran Foer") trying to learn how his grandfather escaped Nazi persecution in the same shtetl. It tells the latter from the perspective of Foer's young Ukrainian tour guide, whose mangling of the English language veers from comical to unintentionally lyrical. The film has gotten rid of the history. The guide remains, and though he's nicely played by Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz, there's no poetry left in his language, just a lot of misused words that could just as easily belong to Balki from Perfect Strangers.
Which leaves… not much, beyond a lot of driving around, forced comedy, and a somber, sleepy tone. Wood and Hutz have a few nice moments of cross-cultural bonding, but every time the film gets too human, Schreiber cuts away. And though a film should stand or fall on its own merits, a late-film revelation about Hutz's grandfather has been softened to the point where it no longer makes sense, as if Schreiber were afraid that engaging any of the moral questions raised by Foer's novel would get in the way of the badly staged deadpan of his fish-out-of-water-story. That road goes nowhere.