Friday, April 07, 2006


Elijah Wood Everything Is Illuminated Directed by Liev Schreiber
Starring Elijah Wood
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Turning a book into film is a sketchy proposition. You never know what the directors, screenwriters, and everyone else involved in the pre, intra, and post-production processes will do with it. Never having read the book ("Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Foer), I can’t draw any comparisons ...but this movie definitely made me want to read it. However, I can tell you what an independent gem this film is, and why most of you will enjoy it.

The films innate quirkiness will draw many viewers in and hold them to the very end. This was undoubtedly the picture’s strongest aspect. Elijah Woods plays Jonathan Foer, an American born Jew who’s obsessive/compulsive disorder makes him "collect" things. He claims he does it so he’ll remember everything but as the film rolls on we see that he’s gathered such artifacts as false teeth, insects, and other oddball items. And added to his strange collection one day is a photograph given to him by his ailing grandmother, a photo of his dead grandfather standing next to a pretty woman. The image was taken in the Ukraine, just before the Nazis attacked Russia, and Jonathan doesn’t recognize the woman. His grandmother refuses to speak to him about who she is. Jonathan’s obsessive/compulsive behavior then takes him to the Ukraine to find out who she was and how she’d affected his grandfather’s life ...and ultimately his own.

Once inside the former Soviet Union, we get to see Jonathan through the eyes of another quirky duo, a grandfather and grandson, who are "experts" in helping American Jews find their heritage in the Ukraine. Ukrainian punk-band leader Eugene Hutz stars as Alex (one of three Alex’s actually, a name passed from grandfather, father, to son), one of Jonathan’s roughshod drivers and his only translator. Young Alex’s English is questionable and he initially views Jonathan as a kind of freak — of course the big glasses and undertaker-style clothes Jonathan wears don’t help his perceptions. But Alex is also trying to discover who his own grandfather is (another "Alex" played by Boris Leskin, MEN IN BLACK), and why he pretends to be blind (Grandpa Alex is also the main driver of their beat-up European car, which adds some initial comic relief but later becomes extremely important and poignant).

Then, of course, there’s the "deranged" dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Yes, that’s two Jr.s), Grandpa Alex's "seeing eye bitch." Jonathan has a fear of dogs that seems extreme but later we find that both Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. and Jonathan are bizarre kindred souls — neither of them will eat something that’s been on the floor, for example. But they both have surprising abilities even though we see them initially as just messed-up (I’ll stop there for fear of giving away too much).

The other strong point I liked about this little film was that it was loaded (perhaps overflowing, some might say) with symbolism. In a Hollywood world where we’re spoonfed every detail, it was nice to see a movie keep it "real". It doesn’t drop to the lowest common denominator. If you don’t understand something, oh well. And there’s lots to think about once the film is over, too. There’s a reason Grandpa Alex claims to be blind but isn’t, and it’s a powerful message. There’s a reason Jonathan "sees" all his Ukrainian acquaintances once he returns to the States. There’s a reason the house where Jonathan finally finds some answers to his many questions is surrounded by sunflowers. Keep your eyes and mind open while watching and you’ll be greatly rewarded.

I’m going to end this review by commenting on the heavy-handed Holocaust films that've infused Hollyweird over the past several years. Although the Holocaust was a horrible event, and it’s something we need to make sure never happens again, beating us over the head with it isn’t always the best method to achieve sledgehammer recognition. Sometimes less is more, and this film achieved a sense of horrible clarity in just a few short shots that many Holocaust films couldn't do in as many hours.

In case you didn’t get it, this is a fantastic movie.

Click here for the Everything is Illuminated movie trailer!


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