Everything Is Illuminated
2005Director: Liev Schrieber
Cast: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin
iscussion of Liev Schrieber’s directorial debut inevitably leads to the source material—Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel. The film, unfortunately, does not share the ambition of this book. Those who have read Everything Is Illuminated should not expect a screen epic that relentlessly blends protagonists, settings, and time-periods while incorporating hundreds of years of history and Jewish folklore. Indisputably taking the safe route, the movie strips the story to its bare bones in both plot and theme. A successful adaptation of everything the book has to offer would be a formidable task. However, the film fails to offer the biting wit and character development that would benefit a streamlined adaptation of the material.
The story follows Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a young Jewish man seeking to uncover family history buried in the carnage of World War II. A collector of artifacts, Jonathan neatly places his findings into little plastic bags. The treasures are accordingly insulated from emotion or reality even as they adorn Jonathan’s walls. When Jonathan travels to Ukraine to research his grandfather’s past, he meets two tour-guides: Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather (Boris Leskin) make their living leading ‘rich Jewish people’ around Ukraine to search for lost relatives. For Jonathan, the Holocaust is a defining event that is nonetheless emotionally sundered from his everyday life. Alex and his grandfather, in contrast, live in a country devastated by Nazi actions; both of these men have learned to separate the horrific events from their reality.
From the outset, Everything Is Illuminated fails to create three-dimensional characters. Admittedly, I’m a fan of Elijah Wood. I think he delivered a standout performance in The Lord of the Rings. However, the character affords the actor little room to breathe. Sporting an impeccable suit (always fully buttoned), a black tie, and monstrously huge glasses, Jonathan always resembles a geek fetish model. Although the film intends Jonathan to seem slightly repressed, he comes across as an obsessive-compulsive freak incapable of emotion. While standing by his grandfather’s deathbed, Jonathan displays more interest in the man’s possessions than the dead body.
On the Ukrainian front, Alex and his grandfather behave even more ridiculously than Jonathan. Obsessed with American culture, Alex spouts fantastically broken English while wearing large gold necklaces and break-dancing in imitation of his favorite ‘Negro’—Michael Jackson. The grandfather does not break out of his grouchy old man persona except to stare sadly off into the distance. Near the end of the film, he is called upon to deliver some random emotional impact and provide implausible plot twists.
Everything Is Illuminated leads these thin characters across a terrain of all-too-familiar cultural barrier jokes. The movie floats happily from misunderstanding to misunderstanding with an expressive dog buoying up any of the plot’s slow bits. As the memory of the Holocaust looms over the entirety of the film, the imminent confrontation with tragedy strongly clashes with the zany humor. The penultimate emotional scene is thus rendered ineffective. Everything Is Illuminated may ironically employ Eastern-European music to comedic effect, but merely switching the score to a woman wailing over the whisper of several voices does not indicate an atmospheric change. Nor, incidentally, does washed-out footage of soulful faces. The horrific description of events during the end of the film is moving, to be sure. Any portrayal of the Holocaust can succeed in imparting disgust and sadness. Everything Is Illuminated fails to provide the backbone that would earn this emotional impact.
During the film’s finale, Alex succinctly explains that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. History does not occur to benefit the living, but instead we are products of a tangible and very real past. Whether it be an event as massive as the Holocaust or a road-trip as minute as that depicted in the film, life is irreducibly connected to everything that came before and, however tangentially, to everything that happens in the present. No life, then, can ever be truly forgotten. This message is true. However, Everything Is Illuminated—the film—is far too slight to capture a sense of the history it seeks to recall. Doubtlessly, the movie shall quickly be forgotten.