I haven’t had much luck with my Netflix picks lately. Some of them I didn’t even finish (Shopgirl and Neverland) and some I finished but just didn’t get well enough to review, so it was well past time for me to see one that knocked my socks off. Everything Is Illuminated is the best film I’ve seen in months.
I haven’t read the novel, so I went in knowing only that it was a journey movie for a young American Jew to find his grandfather’s ‘roots’ in the middle of the Ukraine. Journey movies are usually easy to tell, which is why there are so many of them, but they are hard to tell well anymore. Everything Is Illuminated does the very difficult task of remaining ‘literary’ while also being ‘cinematic.’ For a directorial debut, it is amazing. It will be difficult to see if Mr. Schreiber will be able to top himself.
Jonathan is a collector of Foer family memorabilia. That is the nice way of saying that he collects the detritus of the lives of those close to him in an obsessive manner. After his grandfather’s death, his grandmother gives him a picture of his grandfather standing in a field with a woman other than his grandmother. This woman, he is told, saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The collector is now compelled to go back to the home country to find the woman in the photograph.
Alex (3rd in a line of them) narrates the story. Alex is Jonathan’s translator for the journey which the oldest Alex is the driver. The trio plus the ‘officious seeing eye bytch’ (a dog called Sammy Davis Junior Junior) wander through what has to be the entirety of southern Ukraine in search for a village long gone. As with any journey movie, all of the principles learn things about themselves and about their fellows that allows them to grow and mature. The analysis will reveal much detail of the film, so stop here if you would prefer not to know. A note about this, the brilliance of Everything is Illuminated is in the telling, not in what is being told; this is not a plot driven, twist ridden film.
Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood) appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a high functioning autistic; he isn’t, but his wide eyed staring at all situations, the constant Reservoir Dogs suit and tie, and the ‘rigid’ nature of his search give that indication. He does show emotion, but rarely and when he does it is significant.
I say rigid because Alex the younger refers to their adventure as a ‘rigid search.’ Where Jonathan is the constant reminder of the obsession of searching, Alex (Eugene Hutz) spends the majority of the film as a reminder of the immediacy of the present and the silliness of the past. His English is hysterically just slightly off, referring to sex as ‘being carnal’ and closeness as ‘proxima’—these aren’t especially funny, but in context they can be gut-busting funny. He stands out because he is as hip-hop oriented (and about 25 years behind the times) as a Ukrainian of limited means can be. Alex is responsible for the vast majority of the humor in the film. About 90% of the time his mouth is open, what comes out is funny. His grandfather started a company called Heritage Tours for rich Jews in America to use to come back and try to find relatives; Alex further explains that there is nothing that his grandfather hates more than rich Jews (which becomes supremely ironic as the movie progresses)
Alex also acts as the bridge between the English only, obsessed Jonathan and the Ukrainian only Alex the elder who rediscovers the power of the past. In an aside, the elder Alex (Boris Leskin) is one of the most endearing characters I’ve seen in ages. After his wife died, he claimed to be blind. He was never blind, but the family let him live in his relatively harmless insanity. It is relatively harmless because the family decided to get him a seeing-eye dog. Since he isn’t really blind, the dog isn’t really a seeing-eye dog, just a mutt from what Alex the younger calls the ‘home for forgetful animals.’ The elder Alex keeps a secret until the end of the journey when they actually do find the location and a relative of the woman in the photograph. His secret was fairly obvious from the very beginning when he decides, despite being retired, to manage the tour after hearing the name of the city Jonathan wants to find. Still, the uncovering of the secret is poignant and very moving.
What I witnessed was the film, not the novel. What I’ve spelled out so far could easily be comments about a novel instead of a film. What Mr. Schreiber does with his camerawork is make the film as exciting and lively for the eye as the story. The quirkiness of the characters, the way the camera lingers long on their faces as they register strangeness, and the use of scenery is very much like the Coen brothers when they are at their best (Oh Brother and Barton Fink for instance). Extra kudos is also due Mr. Schreiber for adapting the novel for the screen. Everything Is Illuminated is a smaller and more intimate movie than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the way Mr. Schreiber presents the Ukraine, I am as interested to see it as I am to see New Zealand.
The ending is tidy, but since the title is Everything Is Illuminated it would be a bit of false advertising if the ending wasn’t tidy. None of it seems strained or contrived. Poignancy, humor, and tragedy are all well balanced. I loved the 100 minutes I spent with it and highly recommend it.
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