Everything Is Illuminated
2005, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Liev Schreiber. Starring Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 14, 2005
Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel has been adapted for the screen and directed by the actor Liev Schreiber, who in his first turn behind the camera shows a warm sensitivity toward his characters and their intertwined stories despite an overall lack of acuity regarding their situations. However, some of the problems – the film’s overly precious sense of whimsy and sentiment – may derive more from Foer’s original work than Schreiber’s interpretation. Still, the film feels withdrawn in places where it might have been most engaged, and merely dramatic where it could have been conclusively devastating. Partly, this may be due to the film’s uncomfortable shift in tone as it moves from an amusing road trip in the beginning to epiphanies of history and memory at the end. Throw in a touch of magic realism too, and the film becomes an interesting voyage, although not a terribly illuminating one. Wood plays the author Foer, who travels to Ukraine to find the woman who helped save his grandfather from the Nazis during the war. He is called the Collector for his odd habit of sealing life’s detritus in plastic bags to aid his memory. He wears owlish eyeglasses and speaks little in the film, which helps keep the character at a remove from those around him. His guides on the trip are the self-perceived hipster Alex, a young man whose mangling of English is a source of much humor, and their chauffeur, who is Alex’s grandfather and is also named Alex. The grandfather claims to be blind, although he is not, and traveling with him everywhere is his "seeing-eye bitch" Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. The first half of the film is a road comedy, rife with fish-out-of-water humor, language malaprops, and personality contrasts. Then, as the characters’ search continues for a village that no one seems to recognize, things shift from enchanting travelogue (aided by lovely camerawork by Matthew Libatique) to distressing reflection as they encounter a woman who tells them she is all that is left of the village. She recognizes Foer’s photograph of his grandfather and leads them into a revelatory exposition of what happened on a fateful day in 1942. It’s horrifying and edifying, yet it feels terribly anticlimactic and desaturated of emotion. Nevertheless, Everything Is Illuminated has a haunting afterglow, one that neither satisfies nor illuminates, but at least keeps the flame alive.