Everything Is Illuminated
Directed by Liev Schreiber
Written by Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Starring Elijah Wood
and Eugene Hutz
Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 bestselling debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, tells two stories. The first describes a visit by a 20-year-old American Jew, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, to Ukraine. He has come to visit the village of Trachimbrod, where his grandfather was born, to meet the woman who helped save him from the Nazis.
The story is told by Alexander Perchov, a hip-hop-loving Ukrainian tour guide who works for his grandfather's company, helping "rich Jews searching for their dead families." Alex's fractured wild-and-crazy-guy English is littered with advertising slang, malapropisms and misused words from his thesaurus. ("I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa.")
Though his narrative dominates, it's not the whole story: We also have Alex's letters to Jonathan and portions of Jonathan's own novel, a magical realist account of 300 years of Trachimrod's and his family's history. Told as a kind of epic parody of Shalom Aleichem's shtetl tales, the excerpts are derivative and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, they're also at the heart of the novel's purpose.
In adapting the book for the screen, actor Liev Schreiber has opted to jettison Jonathan's narrative and stick with Alex's more entertaining narration. This is understandable, but since the core of the story is the history and destruction of a Jewish village, it's like telling the story of Goldilocks with only a couple of passing references to bears.
Between its eccentric introduction of the characters and the dark revelations about the past at its conclusion, the film has no real middle -- just lots of road scenes accompanied by bouncy Eastern European folk music and a handful of broadly comic scenes about the Ukrainian-American culture clash.
The film unfolds in chapters (employing an excessive number of shots of the story's cute dog), with periodic fade-aways to an arty white screen. The result is a film that, while intelligent and charming, feels precariously self-important for the thinness of its story.
Schreiber has one major casting coup in Eugene Hutz, the New York-based Ukrainian/Gypsy/Punk musician who plays Alex. A hipster with a gold tooth, Kangol hat and gold chains, he has a long, humorous face and a proud, ridiculous manner. Boris Leskin, who plays the grandfather (also named Alex), sticks to his part as a mad curmudgeon, who finds his grandson a nuisance and Jonathan a freak.
Leskin's opinion has some merit. In fleshing out the character of Jonathan, Schreiber has turned him into a mournful oddity who looks like a door-to-door evangelist, wearing a black suit, horn-rimmed glasses and a solemn, inexpressive manner. (Weirdly, his look resembles his appearance as a depraved sex killer in Sin City).
Rather than a participant in life, Jonathan is a collector of its detritus. Cigarette butts, condoms, a piece of potato wedge and false teeth are all kept in Ziplocked bags and tacked to the wall of his room to trace the history of the Foer family.
Alex and Jonathan's journey takes them to another collector, an old woman who holds the secret to the history of Trachimbrod. For no reason, Schreiber decided to place this old woman in her shack in a glowing field of sunflowers, adding an odd Wizard of Oz element to a story about the Holocaust.
The calendar art image is also symptomatic of a movie that wraps a story of mass murder in a package of whimsy, and prefers to focus on our commonality rather than any collective complicity in the crimes of history.