Adapted from the critically acclaimed faux-autobiographical novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, this could well be the film that allows Elijah Wood to shake off the Frodo associations which, following the insane success of The Lord of the Rings movies, threatened to haunt him for the rest of his career.
Following outings in both Sin City and Green Street, in which he was evidently determined to play against type, Wood here shows that he can indeed do more than merely gaze in wide-eyed terror at computer-generated beasties with a performance that is at once sensitive and quirky.
The novel on which the film is based is so sprawlingly complex that almost everyone who has read it will tell you that it is utterly unfilmable. Then again, fans of The Lord of the Rings and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas said much the same, yet Peter Jackson and Terry Gilliam respectively managed to come out with superb, if not entirely faithful, adaptations that mostly satisfied existing fans of those cult books as well as winning over new ones.
Liev Schreiber, best known as a solid character actor whose face you would recognise but never be able to put a face to, in his directorial debut and working from his own screenplay, has done a masterly job of translating the intricacies of the eclectic prose of the novel into a truly unusual cinematic experience.
Where the novel was a bizarre mix of folk tales, bizarre English and absurdity, Schreiber has managed to whittle away the utterly unfilmable. He has ended up with the odd road movie that lay at the core, as Wood’s almost obsessive-compulsive Froer sets out on a journey to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, deep in the heart of Slavic eastern Europe.
It is a part of the world rarely ventured into by Hollywood except as the venue for dodgy deals between Cold War spies. But here Schreiber exposes the heart, the cultural richness and the humour of the place, thanks largely to the filter that is Wood’s really very odd, yet pretty much perfect central performance, and aided by a range of excellent supporting actors, most notably relative newcomer Eugene Hutz as the slacker travelling companion.
This should really be no surprise, for Schreiber, like Foer, is a descendant of Ukranian immigrants and first met the author before the novel had even been finished. The agreement for Schriber to turn what was then just a short story into a film has, therefore, had just as long a genesis, and is perhaps just as valid a take on the story as Foer’s own novel. And it was largely on the initial short story, which formed the core of the book, that Schreiber based the movie.
Though the company is truly weird and the journey aiming to go deep into the murkiest, most unpleasant depths of Europe’s past, thanks to some expert and sensate adaptation and some truly memorable performances, this is a journey you will not regret taking.