My first viewing of this film a few years ago came about from a friend's recommendation that a work involving both Jewish culture and Russian language would be of abiding interest. Which of course it is, but not in the way one might imagine. As a heavily-invested outsider to these two remarkable communities, I could take what I pleased without any personal betrayal, a pithy explanation of why the most remarkable artistic experiences usually have little in common with our own lives. I can admire the endless fields of bounty, the obsessive-compulsive protagonist in his ridiculous obsessions and compulsions, the sitcomish dinner table banter, and the general population's utter indifference to history because history, as they say, is made to be forgotten – not that we should at all honor such a proposal – and remain cheerfully impassive. Yet there is something so remarkable about journeys like these in fiction and life that one cannot but take sides. And from the very beginning we are rooting for Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood).
A highly neurotic Jewish-American writer of Ukrainian provenance, Jonathan is distinguished as much by his demeanor as his phobias. As we inspect his thick black glass frames and gigantic eyes, we might think of all those unfortunates who sat beside us in classrooms past or we might simply think of a microscope. Jonathan, you see, does not really participate in life as we live it. He is invariably on the side, against a wall, around the corner, at the foot of a bed. He is a scientist in discipline and vigilance, although he has not quite grasped his field of study. The actions and words that construct our world avoid him, and when they coalesce into a material keepsake, he maniacally bags and tags this debris and adds it to a magnificent wall devoted to his family's history (his black suits bespeak perpetual grief). Jonathan has always been himself – a childhood flashback suggests a shrinking ray – even if he is still unsure who precisely that might be. Why has Jonathan always been Jonathan? The explanation is never really given, which is just as well since most of us remain mysteries even unto ourselves. What we can say is that he is a young man of artistic ambitions sensationally terrified of a normal life, which in this context means he is sensationally terrified of discovering that there may be nothing about him and his family to discover (to paraphrase another famous movie, nothing could be worse than being perfectly average). As his grandmother passes away in the opening scenes, she bequeaths a picture of her husband and another woman, Augustine, and the place of its composition, Trachimbrod. In good dramatic convention his ancestor expires after revealing the what, that Augustine helped her husband escape the Fascist blade, but not the how and why. And Jonathan – purposeful and yet so purposeless Jonathan – has been handed an adventure.
The next scenes are so original and so refreshing that we don't really know what to do with them. We meet Alex (a wonderful Eugene Hütz), an urbanized praying mantis of a youth from Odessa who works in tandem with his allegedly blind grandfather (Boris Lyoskin) in "Heritage Tours," a daytripper company specializing in wealthy and curious American Jews. While "Jew" is not the family's preferred ethnic term for the children of Abraham, it is to the film's great credit that Alex never intimates the family enterprise is fraudulent. That is to say, when an American seeks out an old shtetl, he will be driven to it, he will be waited for, and he will be granted a modicum of sympathy (Heritage tours guarantees at least the first two). So when Jonathan commences his "rigid search," in Alex's phrasing, there have been many precedents and there will be many more as ancestor worship, the Internet, and the fall of Communism have all conspired to make seeking out such locales a relatively problem-free excursion. The three pile into an old car with grandfather's small border collie, unknowingly named after probably the most famous of all African-American Jews, and a road movie is born.
Are the ensuing peripatetics predictable? I suppose they are, but they are predictable by virtue of our knowledge that we are watching a film, not living a life. There is no sound way to foresee what Jonathan will learn about himself and others, nor a pigeonhole in which to place a film that so snugly fits in no particular category, not even comedy. The countryside is egaddingly beautiful, the soundtrack appropriately bohemian in its melodies, and the parties involved very uninterested in one another's well-being, allowing selfish desires to surface that vaguely resemble conversation pieces, all through Alex's broad interpretation of English synonyms. We don't really know where the road leads – even Trachimbrod does not seem to exist, for more than one reason – and amidst the raucous laughter and cultural head-butting, a few subtle moments might evade our purview. One character, for example, translates a term of which he should have no knowledge at all; in another scene, Jonathan confesses something so plain and simple, and yet so shocking, that we remember he is not a cut-out but a real person cowering behind a façade of fussiness. And the final reel, when Jonathan returns to an America that we only saw through his eyes to begin with, will puzzle the viewer who may not think much of transatlantic coincidence, or, for that matter, of fate itself.
The irony of this great movie is that it belies its title, but not as slyly as it might think. Perhaps a good chunk of fault can be imputed to the original novel, which I could not read because it is written not to be read but to be discussed. Never mind that it is also written in Alex's fantastic brand of English that sounds so articulate filtered through a Russian accent that we have at times something akin to poetry (his admission that "many girls want to be carnal with me," Sammy Davis Jr.'s job as the "seeing eye bitch," the fact that the name "Alex" is "much more flaccid to utter" than his full name, and his wonderful use of the word "premium"). Yet the inherent problem with any apotheosis is the run-up. While we can leap from the mundanely comical to a deep sense of the tragic, the staircase must manifest itself in slices, not as a sudden spiral to the heavens. We know Jonathan wishes to understand how close he came to never existing; we also know that there is nothing more personal or tragic than familial bereavement. These two components of our sense of decay will always generate pain, because most of us persist in our convictions that we are mortal. A trip to where your grandfather barely avoided the scythe must evoke both fear and trembling, and with these emotions, some greater comprehension. Of what exactly, however, will depend on the beholder.