Everything is Illuminated
No longer need anyone compile a must-avoid list for first-time directors known for other things, as we now have actor Liev Schreiber’s Everything is Illuminated. It’s all here: the overly composed compositions and mannered/ self-important style flourishes that announce themselves, in boldface, as art. The studied (read: really slow) pace that does the same. More irritatingly, in the context of this post-Focus Features boutique-liberal, upscale indie-movie universe, there are the now de rigueur Lost in Translation-isms: the endless, condescending embodiments of foreign stereotypes who have strange, hilarious customs, eat exotic food, and don’t speak American like normal people.
A truncated re-telling of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Illuminated is about Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a Brooklyn Jew who is weird. He lacquers his dyed-black hair, wears a black suit, collects endless bits of whatever for storage in small plastic bags, and becomes obsessed with learning the truth about his late grandfather’s fate in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during World War II.
So it’s off to Odessa for Jonathan, where he’s met by a feeble-minded family that runs tours for Jews seeking to explore their past. One of them is Alex (Eugene Hutz), a Kangol-wearing, hip-hop-obsessed youth who talks the English real funny. Another is Alex’s crotchety “blind” grandfather (Boris Leskin), who serves as their driver, has a “seeing-eye bitch” named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., and is also called Alex.
So anyway, it’s a road movie, and road movies are as good as the folks you meet along the way. Here we meet some mean, inbred steel workers, a fat, growling innkeeper, a toothless kid, and so on—all of whom have never heard of, to say nothing of having any idea about the location of, a town that is maybe a few miles away. Must be a Ukrainian thing.
Schreiber’s movie purports to be about the importance of finding one’s roots—which Jonathan eventually does, with a flourish of second-hand, Magritte-styled, not-so-magical realism that mixes badly with its Holocaust theme. And while the ideas of personal interconnection and historical memory are certainly important verities, the way that Illuminated presents them comes off as either craven, naive, supercilious, or vaporous—and sometimes all four.
Likable enough within the limited parameters allowed them, Wood’s Jonathan and the other characters—especially those of senior vintage—are never allowed to go beyond their assigned eccentricities to become recognizably human. Along with the idea that quirk equals character, a ceaseless stream of “hip” Slavic punk, “tasteful” evocation of Nazis slaughtering an entire village, and its epilogue of candied uplift, Everything is Illuminated is wrong-headed in comfortably edgy ways that will probably please its target audience.