Everything is Illuminated
March 28, 2006
Based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (2005) is about one man’s journey to discover his roots and marks the feature film directorial debut by actor Liev Schreiber. The novel has quite a devoted cult following and may find Schreiber’s cinematic take a tad disappointing because so much from the book is not in the film. However, this is the nature of cinematic adaptations as the movie really has to be its own thing.
Jonathan (Wood) is a nebbish fellow with coke-bottle glasses and who always wears a suit. Ever since he was a little boy, he has collected little mementos and artifacts from his family’s past. Each piece is linked to a specific family member. He is given an old photograph by his grandmother (Hrabetova) on her deathbed but she dies before revealing the identity of the women with his grandfather in the photo. The only thing he has associated with his grandfather is a preserved insect and this can be seen around the neck of the mysterious woman in the photo.
So, Jonathan heads to the Ukraine and gets in touch with his family’s Jewish heritage while also finding out who the woman is in the photo. He hooks up with Alexander (Hutz), a young man from Odessa obsessed with American culture (especially hip hop), and his grandfather (Leskin)as their driver, despite a belief that he is blind (he even as his own seeing eye dog that is referred to as his “seeing eye bitch”).
Alex is Jonathan’s translator and much of the film’s humour comes from the culture shock that Jonathan experiences being a stranger in a strange land. For example, he has a phobia of dogs and is subsequently stuck in the backseat of Alex’s car with his grandfather’s dog. Alex treats Jonathan to dinner not knowing that he is a vegetarian. There is also a language barrier and so on.
Jonathan is our window into this foreign culture and we become immersed in this exotic world. We see the state of the Ukraine after the fall of Communism and the subsequent rise of Capitalism. You have to give actor Elijah Wood credit for refusing to be typecast after the phenomenonal success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since then, he’s done such diverse films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Sin City (2005).
Director Schreiber has a good eye for detail and certainly knows how to properly compose a frame. One has to admire his choice of picking rather uncommercial subject matter instead of playing it safe with a romantic comedy or something more accessible. He is able to establish a specific mood and rhythm that is somewhat engaging.
Although it is a little hard to identify with the quirky Jonathan and a lot of the humour tends to be on the obvious side, Everything is Illuminated improves significantly towards the end when the emotional payoff arrives. It would have been interesting to see what this film would have been like with the more subtle touch of someone like Jim Jarmusch who has a real kinship for culture outsiders. In the end, all Jonathan wants to know are the simple answers to questions in life, like where do I come from and why am I here? His journey is to find those answers and one comes away from this film feeling that he achieved these goals.
“Additional Scenes” features a different introduction for Jonathan that is much more absurdist (and ambitious) in nature but the tone is wildly at odds with the rest of the movie. Same goes for Alex’s extended intro and wisely Schreiber knew what to keep and what to cut out.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.