There are a lot of people who claim that in order to fully appreciate a literary adaptation, you have to have read the source material before you see the film on which it is based. I don't ascribe to this theory and if you want a good reason why, look no further than the hideous treatment of Saruman in the cinema release of the Return of the King, and he did not fare much better in the fan boy pleasing extended edition, if I had never read the book, this would not have rankled so much.
Never having read the book on which Liev Schriebers directorial debut is based, I came to this film with no preconceptions at all, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised as a result. Taking the story of one mans search for his roots as its basis, this is a movie that is both funny and moving as it deals with the much covered subject of roots and genocide in a decidedly new fashion. Elijah Wood plays the central character of Jonathan Safran Foer, a young man who is compulsively driven to collect mementos about his Jewish family, so that he never forgets them. When his grandfather dies, Jonathan finds a photograph of his grandfather as a young man in the company of a mystery woman, the woman who apparently saved his grandfathers life during World War 2. So Jonathan, in search of the truth, sets of for his grandfather's homeland of the Ukraine. Here he meets his guide for the journey, a Western obsessed culture vulture named Alex (played with hilarious conviction by Eugene Hutz), and his driver, Alex's grandfather, who has his own reasons for wanting to help Jonathan.
Initially coming across as just another culture clash comedy, albeit a very funny one, the film manages to be something more than what it initially appears to be, cramming in such as subplots as anti-Semitism, understanding and forgiveness around its broad central theme. As the mismatched trio move closer to their final destination (which comes as a surprise when it is finally revealed), accompanied by Alex's grandfathers dog, the strangely named Sammy Davis Junior Junior, they begin to understand each other and appreciate each other as well, particularly Alex and Jonathan, who strike up a strange friendship. The three leads are very good, with Elijah Wood playing Jonathan as a nervous man who is afraid of what life will throw at him next and Boris Leskin as the cursing moody grandfather who has a secret that he can no longer hide. But it is Eugene Hutz as Alex who is the real star of the film. As Jonathans English mangling guide, he portrays Alex as a man who is almost the polar opposite of Jonathan, happy to take what life throws at him and tackle it head on.
This is an assured and enjoyable directorial debut from Schrieber, who although he occasionally allows the film to loose its focus, particularly in the central section, has crafted an enjoyable and highly watchable movie with an ear for the earthy and an eye for the absurd.