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EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005)
Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan, the protagonist in "Everything Is Illuminated," is an odd, quiet young man whose large eyes (they are the eyes of Elijah Wood) are made larger by enormous spectacles. He wears a suit and tie at all times, even when he is sleeping outdoors in a field, and his hair is slicked nerdily. He compulsively saves mementos of everything, keeping them in Ziploc bags and tacking them up on the walls of his home.
It's this desire to document his experiences in the world that leads him to the Ukraine, his grandfather's homeland before fleeing the Nazis and coming to America. A woman named Augustine -- all Jonathan has is a first name and a photograph -- helped his grandfather make the escape, and Jonathan wants to find her and thank her.
To that end, he enlists the services of Heritage Tours, an Odessa-based business that specializes in helping American Jews find their dead ancestors. Our narrator, Alex (Eugene Hutz), is the 20-ish son of the proprietor. Alex dresses like an American hip-hop thug and apparently learned English from the wild-and-crazy Festrunk Brothers on "Saturday Night Live." ("Many girls want to be carnal with me because I am such a premium dancer," he says.) He is enlisted, with his grandfather (Boris Leskin) and their dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (yes, Jr. Jr.), to drive Jonathan around the countryside in search of this Augustine woman.
That's the setup for this contemplative, bittersweet film, as much a sublime comedy as it is a drama about the urgency of understanding and learning from one's past. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, it was adapted and directed by the actor Liev Schreiber, who makes an impressive debut in both capacities.
There is much to admire in the film's strange sense of humor, from Alex's bizarrely broken English, to Grandfather's insistence that he is blind despite all evidence to the contrary (he's the one who drives the Heritage Tours vehicle), to the quaint, fractured little Ukrainian places the travelers visit. But the purpose of the mission is serious, and it reveals things about the Ukraine's involvement in the Holocaust that even Alex, who is as Ukrainian as they come, didn't know.
Eugene Hutz is the lead singer in a "gypsy punk" band with no prior acting experience -- but you wouldn't guess it from his performance, which is jaunty and effervescent and utterly lacking in self-consciousness.
Elijah Wood, meanwhile, is earnestly calm as Jonathan, his face registering interest in what's going on. It's an effective method as it fits the film's generally low-key demeanor. Wood has a magnetism throughout the film: Jonathan is such a fish out of water that watching him trace his roots is perpetually interesting. Watching Alex is interesting, too, but for the opposite reason -- he's free-wheeling and off-center. Together, they comprise a pair (and a movie) that is absolutely premium.
Liev Schreiber's "Everything is Illuminated" begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory. How it gets from one to the other is the subject of the film, a journey undertaken by three men and a dog into the secrets of the past. The movie is narrated by Alex (Eugene Hutz), a Ukranian whose family specializes in "tours of dead Jews." Alex and his grandfather (also named Alex) drive American Jews in search of their roots to the places where many of their ancestors died.
The trip through a bewildering but beautiful Ukrainian countryside involves a Soviet-era car that may not exactly have air bags. The grandfather is the driver, although he claims to be blind and insists on going everywhere with his "seeing eye bitch," whose name is Sammy Davis Junior Junior. Alex's English seems learned from a thesaurus that was one word off. He tortures words to force them into sentences from which they try to escape, and keeps a journal with chapters like Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Search.
The movie's hero is Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a solemn, goggle-eyed American known as "The Collector" because he accumulates bits and pieces of his life and stores them in Ziploc bags, carefully labeled. He has come to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather's life. To this woman is due much gratitude, because Jonathan's grandmother passed along the belief that the Ukraine treated Jews so badly that if the Nazis invaded, it might be an improvement.
The opening hour or so is a weirdly hilarious comedy, based on the intractable nature of Grandfather (Boris Leskin), his fierce love for Sammy Davis Junior Junior, and his truce with his grandson, who idolizes American popular culture, especially Michael Jackson. When Jonathan tells him Sammy Davis Jr. the First was Jewish, he is astonished: "What about Michael Jackson?" No, says Jonathan, definitely not Michael Jackson.
There is much perplexion (the kind of word the younger Alex savors) that Jonathan is a vegetarian, and in a hotel dining room he is told potatoes do not, cannot, have never, come without meat. He is finally served one boiled potato, in a scene that develops as if Chaplin had been involved. Then he goes to his room, a narrow single bed in the midst of vast emptiness. Alex advises him to lock his door: "There are many dangerous people who would try to steal things from Americans and also kidnap them."
The journey continues. Sammy Davis Junior Junior begins to love Jonathan. Grandfather speaks like a crusty anti-Semite, Alex covers for him in his translation, and nobody seems to have heard of the hamlet of Trachimbrod, which they seek. Then abruptly the grandfather steers off the highway and into the middle of nowhere, and they find a beautiful white-haired old woman (Laryssa Lauret) living in a house in the middle of a field, who simply says, "You are here. I am it."
The movie is based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer that reportedly includes many more scenes from the distant past, including some of magic realism in the 18th century Ukrainian Jewish community. "Everything is Illuminated" lives in the present, except for memories and enigmatic flashbacks to the Second World War. The gift that Schreiber brings to the material is his ability to move us from the broad satire of the early scenes to the solemnity of the final ones. The first third of the film could be inspired by Fellini's "Amarcord," the last third by Bergman's darkest hours.
I described Jonathan as the hero of the film, but perhaps he is too passive to be a hero. He regards. He collects. Alex is the active character, cheerfully inventing English as he goes along, making the best of the journey's hardships, humoring his grandfather, telling the rich American what he wants to hear. Eugene Hutz, a singer in a punk gypsy band, brings notes of early John Turturro to the performance. Elijah Wood's performance is deliberately narrow and muted -- pitch-perfect. He visits, he witnesses, he puts things in Ziploc bags.
Then again, perhaps the real hero of the film is the grandfather, unless by default it is the old lady, who is a Collector, too. For Grandfather, this is as much a journey of discovery as it is for Jonathan, and the changes that take place within him are all the more profound for never once being referred to in his dialogue. He never discusses his feelings or his memories, but in a way he is the purpose of the whole trip. The conclusion he draws from it is illustrated in an image that, in context, speaks more eloquently than words.
"Everything is Illuminated" is a film that grows in reflection. The first time I saw it, I was hurtling down the tracks of a goofy ethnic comedy when suddenly we entered dark and dangerous territory. I admired the film but did not sufficiently appreciate its arc. I went to see it again at the Toronto Film Festival, feeling that I had missed some notes. The second time, I was more aware of the journey Schreiber was taking us on, and why it is necessary to begin where he begins in order to get where he's going.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated marks the screen-writing and directorial debut of Liev Schreiber, who I was first introduced to as the falsely accused killer in Scream who was on-screen for a mere couple seconds. Before Scream, Iíd never even heard of Liev Schreiber. Numerous film and countless stage performances later, its say to that that this talented man had done all an actor could ever want to do. What other logical step but to then attempt to conquer the directing world, which he surely does here.
Eugene Hutz stars as Alex, a young man who, with the help of his grandfather (played by Boris Leskin), join together to help a young man in find the woman who saved his own grandfather when his hometown in the Ukraine was attacked and wiped out by Naziís. Eljah Wood plays Jonathan Safran Foer, a man on a mission, who wrote the original novel from which the film is also based.
Unlike many book-to-screen films, Everything is Illuminated does not play out like a watered-down version of its predecessor, nor do you get the feeling that Schreiber set out to make this film an exhibition of his new-found directing passions. And it could not have come at a better time. With all the craziness in Iraq, not to mention the four year anniversary of 9-11 just recently passed, itís safe to say that anyone who has not gone through the Holocaust personally, has most likely put it on the back-burner for quite some time.
As per usual, an enjoyable performance, of course with dramatic facial expressions from Elijah Wood, which over time, Iíve grown to accept and appreciate for what theyíre worth. And expect many more dramatic pinter moments in this flick; for those of you who donít know, a pinter moment is when everything is said without words. Perhaps youíre better off sometimes than having it rammed down your throat. Donít know if we have Liev to thank for that, or if it's simply Elijahís choice, but whoever is responsibleÖthank you.