Everything Is Illuminated (USA, director Liev Schreiber): Based upon the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safron Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber. An audacious choice, since the novel is multi-layered and very “meta”, but Schreiber, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the material with ease, for the most part.
Elijah Wood (looking as doll-like as ever, and wearing glasses that magnify his already-huge eyes to make the not-so-subtle point that he is an observer) plays Jonathan, a man obsessed with collecting things from his family’s history. When his grandmother hands him a photograph from 1940 saying, “Your grandfather wanted you to have this,” it sends Jonathan off on a voyage of discovery. The picture is of his grandfather in Ukraine, standing with an unknown woman who, according to his grandmother, saved him from the Nazis, allowing him to escape to America.
Jonathan duly turns up in Ukraine, where he hopes to unravel the mystery of the woman in the photograph. His tour guides turn out to be a little unnerving to the fussy and obsessive vegetarian. His translator Alex is like a Ukrainian version of Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Ali G and Borat characters rolled into one, and is played by newcomer Eugene Hutz, the frontman for the “gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello, who contribute several songs to the soundtrack. While I thought his accent in the film was just an outrageous parody, during the Q & A, I realized it was actually his real voice (or maybe not. It could be part of the shtick.). Alex’s grandfather, the driver, thinks he is blind and is accompanied everywhere by Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., his “seeing-eye bitch.” Alex’s mangled English leads to many laughs, and the middle section of this road movie is easily the most enjoyable.
Things get a bit more serious when they find the woman in the photograph, but here, in a section of the film called “The Illumination,” I found myself still a little in the dark. Perhaps in ironing out a few of the book’s twists, something was lost, but I found the “mystery” either confusing or not so mysterious, and actually felt a little unsatisfied by the end.
However, the film is shot and edited beautifully, the acting is fine, and the directing sure-handed. Schreiber admitted that the stuff in the book that he left out of the film was the stuff that attracted him to the idea in the first place. Which is an odd thing to say, really. The book contains an imagined history of the shtetl where Jonathan’s grandfather was raised, a place with hundreds of years of history which is wiped out by the Nazis in a few hours. I think this background would have given the film the weight it needed at the end of the journey. Without that ballast, the film floats away a bit.
Nevertheless, this is an assured debut from Schreiber, and I look forward to seeing what he chooses for his next project.
Gogol Bordello Web Site: http://www.gogolbordello.com