Actor Liev Schreiber makes a very audacious debut as a writer/director with Everything Is Illuminated, a strange film that starts out as one thing and transforms into something quite different before it’s done.
I haven’t read the source novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is apparently something of a fantasticated memoir (the main character of the film is named Jonathan Safran Foer) and is more complex than the movie Schreiber has crafted from it. What he has made, however, is perhaps still too complex and peculiar for mass consumption.
The story is at bottom a journey — or rather, three journeys that strangely interconnect. Jonathan (Elijah Wood) is an obsessive collector, an observer of life rather than a participant. He puts bits of his and — more often — other people’s lives into re-sealable plastic bags and hangs them on his wall as a bizarre monument to the past.
When Jonathan learns of the existence of a Ukrainian woman who saved his late grandfather during World War II, he decides to go to back to the Old Country to attempt to find her. There he hooks up with an outfit that specializes in getting money out of rich American Jews in search of their ancestry. It’s a kind of family operation with a crotchety, anti-Semitic, supposedly blind grandfather (Boris Leskin, Men in Black) serving as a driver (complete with a “seeing-eye bitch” named Sammy Davis Junior Junior) and his grandson, Alex (Eugene Hutz from the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello), a wanna-be American hipster with a penchant for mangling English.
If all this sounds a little precious, maybe it is, but it’s agreeably so, and often quite funny — and a deceptive setup for what is to come. My only complaint, in fact, is Schreiber’s decision to back up far too much of this with jaunty ethnic music to convince us that it’s funny. The material is humorous and quirky enough; the score is merely intrusive and, worse, seems to be competing for laughs with what it’s supposed to be supporting.
What starts as one man’s journey to find the past slowly becomes the grandfather’s journey to confront the past and his role in it, as well as Alex’s journey to self-awareness. All of it hinges on the village of Trachimbrod, which no one has ever heard of, and a strange woman, Lista (Laryssa Lauret), who claims — not incorrectly — that she is Trachimbrod. She, like Jonathan, turns out to be a collector.
But is she the woman they seek? And what is the secret that the grandfather is coming to grips with? To find that out, you’ll have to see the film. But I will say that some of the answers to the whole quest are disquieting, to say the least. Yet though these revelations contain tragedy, the final impression of the film is one of people being set free, albeit in different ways, after being imprisoned by the past — or by a simple fear of living. The movie is savvy enough not to hand out any pat answers, but it seems unlikely that Jonathan will continue his role as observer/collector after his journey.
There are an unusual number of worthy films playing just now, but this one belongs high on your list of things to see. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images/violence, sexual content and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke