TORONTO – Frodo Baggins is on another road trip involving a ring, his fellowship this time not elves, dwarfs and wizards but a foul-mouthed old Ukrainian, his America-obsessed grandson and a deranged dog.
Elijah Wood (search), who starred as hobbit Frodo in the monumental "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, leads the cast of "Everything Is Illuminated," (search) a simultaneously rollicking and sober road flick about a young American in search of the woman who saved his Jewish grandfather during the Nazi invasion in Ukraine.
Opening this weekend, "Everything Is Illuminated" comes on the heels of "Green Street Hooligans," in which he plays an expelled Harvard student who moves to London and becomes caught up in the menacing madness of soccer.
"It was kind of unique and great to have two films coming out within a week. It certainly was a different experience for me," Wood told The Associated Press at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Everything Is Illuminated" played. "They are so completely different. Football hooliganism and violence and mad Ukrainian road movie."
"Everything Is Illuminated" marks the directing debut of actor Liev Schreiber, who adapted the screenplay from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (search).
Wood, 24, plays Jonathan, a character self-consciously named after the author, a stoic, reserved man stiffly dressed in the same black suit and thick-rimmed glasses each day, whose compulsive personality prompts him to collect photos, trinkets, even part of a potato, sealing the items in sandwich bags as physical manifestations of his life.
On a visit to Ukraine to find the obliterated town where his grandfather miraculously survived the Nazi occupation, Jonathan hooks up with tour guides Alex (Eugene Hutz), a local fixated on American culture, Alex's cantankerous grandpa (Boris Leskin) and their mad little dog.
Buoyed by a raucous soundtrack of gypsy music, the odd quartet bounces along in a rickety car through a series of comic culture clashes, the tone of the movie gradually turning darker as they near their objective and uncover surprises about the early life of Jonathan's grandfather and his escape from the Nazis.
The quest even brings the characters into possession of a little gold ring, though not the ominous bit of jewelry Frodo bore.
With his bottomless blue eyes, Wood perfectly embodied the stiff fish-out-of-water nature of Jonathan, said Schreiber, who starred in "The Manchurian Candidate," "A Walk on the Moon" and the cable movie "RKO 281."
"I really liked the idea of delivering an American character who defied some of the cultural cliches we have been exporting to the rest of the world. A character who was awkward, vulnerable, young, innocent, neurotic, somewhat alien," Schreiber said. "Those characteristics kind of led me to Elijah.
"Not to mention that when trying to articulate a character who is in essence an observer of the world, eyes become important. And if eyes are the portals of the soul, Elijah's got garage doors."
Wood's eyes have served him well in expressive roles from his child-acting days and teen years in such films as "Avalon" and "The Ice Storm," through "Lord of the Rings" and beyond. He co-starred in 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and played against type as a taciturn, cannibalistic killer in this year's "Sin City."
Since "Lord of the Rings," whose three installments were shot simultaneously over almost a year and a half, Wood has centered mainly on more intimate films that were not lengthy costume-and-makeup affairs.
"I don't know that I necessarily feel more comfortable in the context of smaller films, but I tend to feel more comfortable more often than not with the material of smaller films," Wood said.
"I do think there was an active choice to do something small, as simple as it may sound, just so I didn't have to work on something for 16 months. The idea of two months, nice and contained, just about character, and no time in makeup was a thrill to me."
Wood is open to big-budget films so long as they provide an opportunity to create full-blooded characters. He realizes, though, that "Lord of the Rings" always will remain a benchmark.
"Not just a benchmark in my career, but a benchmark in my life," Wood said. "Those were 16 months living in New Zealand at 18 for the first time living on my own for that length of time, making some of the best friends of my life, experiencing a family relationship unlike any I'd ever experienced on a film.
"It had a profound impact on me as a human being, and I did a lot of growing within that, so that will always be a defining moment in my life, a defining time."