Well, great—now Judge Brett Cullum feels like a fool for bringing his flashlight...
Jonathan: I'm a vegetarian.
Elijah Wood (star of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is on a journey in a strange land, because an odd piece of jewelry was entrusted to his care by an old man. Sounds familiar? But this is not a Peter Jackson CGI epic about hairy footed short people looking to get rid of a ring. No, it's the directorial debut of Liev Schreiber. You know, that guy who was Cotton in the Scream trilogy? Well, he wrote and directed this film based on a popular and dense novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Liev boiled it down to one element, because honestly the book would have to be a mini-series to even come close to recounting everything on the printed page. So he simplified the novel into a quirky road movie with strong visuals. It's like The Odd Couple, but with foreigners forced together on a quest about one's ancestry. Think "Frodo takes off with Legolas to find his grandhobbit, and wacky hijinks ensue." Only this is stranger than that.
Facts of the Case
Jonathan is an obsessive collector who keeps family mementos in ziplock baggies all around his room. We're talking tufts of hair, used condoms, dentures—really odd stuff, which probably represent a biohazard in some cases, from his relatives. After his grandmother passes, he is given a photo of his grandfather with an unidentified girl in the Ukraine. He wants to find out who she is, and possibly get some of her hair, so he sets off for Eastern Europe. With the help of a translator named Alex who speaks broken English (Eugene Hutz, Kill Your Idols), he sets off on a journey of discovery. The unlikely duo are joined by a cranky Ukrainian grandfather, who thinks he's blind yet somehow becomes their driver. Also along for the ride is Granddad's "seeing eye bitch," named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. Everything is Illuminated is at first a zany road comedy, where two cultures clash and meaning is found in the smallest details. But after the initial levity of the first half hour, the movie takes a dark turn and becomes a meditation on the meaning of history and memories. In the end it aspires to transform into a deeply moving melodrama with a powerful conclusion.
Oy vey! Everything is Illuminated is an intensely personal project for Liev Schreiber, because he is of the Jewish faith. You don't have to be of the same religious beliefs to get the film, but it's going to help make it resonate for you a lot more. Half of my family is Jewish, so about half of me really got it and cried at the end. The Methodist and Southern Baptist parts of me wondered why the climax had any punch.
But I am getting ahead of myself here. The first thing I should say is that the performances are quite good. Elijah Wood is going to be a big actor, and one day he'll break out of these small independent movies. I kid of course…but I appreciate his willingness to do small projects like this that have deeper meaning than the endless blockbusters he could be starring in. You can feel him developing his craft via the chance to play a neurotic Jewish man, a part that Woody Allen might have been up for in his younger years. Yet Wood allows his eyes to say more than his words, and that's where he's very different and gifted. Boris Leskin (Men in Black) is a Russian actor who plays the grandfather. Like his younger acting partner, he uses his eyes to allow us to see the soul under a rough exterior. The remaining star is the lead singer of a gypsy punk rock band named Gogol Bordello; this is his first major acting role. Eugene Hutz has to supply all the comedy in the first reel, and he does it nimbly with a humble grace. In the book he was the narrator, and he serves the same purpose here. Funny thing—he is Ukrainian, yet every American who watches the movie will identify with him hard and fast from the first moment. And how could I not mention the Mikki the dog, who makes his screen debut as Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.? She nearly steals the whole picture out from under everyone with a fierce bark and some well-placed whimpers.
Liev Schreiber's directing debut reminds me a lot of Sophia Coppola's debut, The Virgin Suicides. It is his first movie, and he has decided to adapt a novel on his own as a screenwriter, much like Miss Coppola. He's chosen a passionate subject for himself, and made a statement right out of the box. Not only has he proven himself to be an interesting actor, but now he navigates solo filmmaking quite successfully. He shows an uncanny knack for visuals—images in this movie ache with beauty and longing. He shot the film in the Ukraine, a location that provides for him a rich fourth character. The surprise about Everything is Illuminated is how well it is photographed, and the symbols communicate a richness not often found in cinema. He is a director to watch, and it's easy to get excited about his new career.
The DVD contains a dazzling anamorphic "matted" widescreen transfer that conveys the image detail quite well. Colors are saturated to almost painterly proportions, and there's nary a nick or scratch to be found. Digital artifacts are kept to a minimum, and only a tiny hint of edge enhancement crops up briefly. The surround mix is well executed, with the score coming in at the right levels not to obscure any of the dialogue. Surround channels are used very well to add atmospherics in outside scenes. It's a wonderful technical presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only wish for the DVD would be a more healthy dose of extras. Liev Schreiber put a lot of passion into his movie, and it would be nice to hear how he felt about the material and the final product either in an interview or commentary, but alas neither are to be found. The sole extra is a set of additional scenes which add character beats, but which were wisely left on the cutting room floor to move the story along. That's it, folks. Move along…nothing more to see. It's always a pity to see a movie where you would appreciate good interviews with the cast, crew, and the book's author, but are offered nothing.
Oddly enough, where Schreiber fails in this directorial debut is in the climax. It's meant to be a heart-wrenching moment where everything clicks into place, but Everything is Illuminated becomes a misnomer, because everything just slightly glows. Don't get me wrong, I was moved by the finale. It does work to a degree, but it's nowhere near as smart as the gradual buildup in the first hour and a half would lead you to hope for. Perhaps tackling a literary work as dense as the source novel was too much, but suddenly the visuals can't compensate for what we should be feeling instead of seeing. Maybe the film is too beautiful for it's own good. When it tries to show us something ugly, it just can't bear to do it. The final punch is pulled by an artsy concern for production rather than human connection. It doesn't bring the whole movie crashing down, but it does feel anticlimactic. And it's also where the Christians in the audience will wonder what the fuss is about, whereas those who read the Torah will be more moved.
Everything is Illuminated is a dazzling visual journey into the Ukraine. It's a chance to see Elijah Wood leave behind the Shire for something more deep and personal. A wonderful comedic performance is delivered by Eugene Hutz. Most astonishingly, a new director emerges with a flair for the visual medium. It's definitely worth a look, and you'll be glad you did if you decide to make the journey. But like all real life treks, the destination ultimately seems a little anticlimactic after the anticipation of the journey.
Guilty of being a premium directorial debut for Liev Schreiber.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Deleted Scenes
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