Everything is Illuminated

October, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Liev Schreiber

Starring:Elijah Wood, Eugene Hütz, Boris Leskin, and Laryssa Lauret

Everything Is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer's novel has been adapted for the screen and directed by Liev Schrieber, the gifted actor whose appearance in a number of otherwise forgettable films has often rendered them fitfully interesting. As a thespian, he joins Peter Saragaard as one of the superior film actors of his generation, assuring audiences that the performance standards of actors like Robert Duval and Gene Hackman won't be entirely absent in the years ahead. Now, following in the celluloid footsteps of Duval, (remember The Apostle?) he's branching out, but with intensely frustrating results for those anxious to see his career prosper. In a word, Schrieber has given us a movie that can be summed up in two words: thoroughly irritating.

It's not for lack of a powerful story. In it, Elijah Woods plays the author, a spectacled nebbish with a penchant for gathering and preserving, in copious detail, the memorabilia of his father's family as they migrated to the U.S. from eastern Ukraine during the early days of WW II. Driven by a compulsion to trace the history of a woman standing with his father in a faded photograph taken during that era, Jonathan flies to Odessa and puts himself in the hands of Alex, (Eugene Hutz) a part-time tour guide and unabashed Anglophile who can't understand why anyone would bother to leave the USA  in order to rummage through a past most locals would like to forget. Alex's grandfather, a grizzled peasant who gruffly disparages Jonathan's Jewish heritage, agrees to act as chauffeur for a journey to the little village where Jonathan's father was raised. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to find anyone who knows were it is, for reasons that become clear in the final reel, when Alex's grandfather must embrace the implications of his past even more fully than Jonathan.   

Schrieber spins this tale out over 106 of the most agonizing minutes I've ever spent in the dark; as a director, he seems to believe that images come pre-loaded with meaning, so that mere exposition provides the emotional response he so obviously desires. Yet Jonathan, as Woods plays him, is nearly comatose; he provides no hint as to his motivations and the audience is left with the conclusion that he acts out of simple compulsion. This cipher is then mixed with the voluble Alex, whose fractured English is played for verbal wisecracks in what begins as a Ukrainian version of a frat house road trip, right-faces into serious drama, then segues into visual fantasy only to return Jonathan to America bearing the following insight: only by studying the past can we properly appreciate and understand the present. Talk about a fleeting glimpse into the obvious…

Hutz, (who in real life spends most of his time as front man for a gypsy punk band) may have been the inspiration for the film's score, an ersatz mixture of Ukrainian folk music crossed with an eastern European version of garage-band grunge. While it initially works to place Alex in a contemporary culture at odds with its own past, the director's decision to continue employing it throughout the movie as background for events which grow ever more sobering becomes first annoying, then profoundly offensive. A number of characters are introduced to provide context without actually providing any; the members of Jonathan and Alex's families appear initially, never to return. Jonathan, as keeper of family memories, meets a remarkable woman responsible for doing the same thing for his father's entire village--yet the audience rarely sees any examples of these intimate mementos of daily life which have so profoundly shaped two such curiously distinctive individuals. A snarling pet dog accompanies the trio, (supposedly as seeing-eye support for Alex's grandfather who has no trouble driving through the countryside) for no other purpose than to provide grist for lame jokes long since overused in Disney movies. Instead of shaping his material into a story that evolves as Jonathan's search nears and then reaches its sobering climax, Schrieber provides vignettes that only serve to lessen the impact of this odyssey. The director obviously has great passion for this material; why does he defuse it with such irrelevancies?

The answer may lie in the fact that the film's budget simply didn't permit a deeper and more detailed examination of the cumulative details of the lives destroyed by the Holocaust. No non-Jew can ever appreciate the value, indeed the necessity, of painstakingly preserving that horrific event. (Whether remembering it in such detail can do damage to those engaged in its preservation is another matter.) In the end, Schrieber's reach greatly exceeds his grasp, providing audiences with the frustrated feeling that an interesting story has been botched in the telling.   

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