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Everything is Illuminated Review

By Shawn McKenzie 01/31/2006

Everything is Illuminated is the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber…probably best known for his work in the Scream movies.  The movie starts out funny and enjoyable…but then it gets painfully serious and dull.

New Yorker Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) is a young man who is a collector of pieces of family-related memorabilia:  bottle caps, his grandmother’s dentures, a grasshopper suspended in amber, etc.  He puts them all in clear plastic bags that he tacks to the wall.  When his grandmother (Jana Hrabetova) passes away, Jonathan travels to the Ukraine to find Augustine (Tereza Veselkova), the woman who saved his grandfather Safran (Stepan Samudovsky) from a Nazi concentration camp during the World War II Holocaust in 1942.  Using an old photograph that his grandmother had given to him before she passed, Jonathan arrives in Odessa and meets Alex (Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello) and Alex’s grandfather (Boris Leskin), the owners of the Heritage Tours Trabant (which is an old East German car.)  They specialize in driving “rich Jewish people” around the country who are looking for their relatives and ancestral homes.  Alex is a tall lanky fellow who is obsessed with Michael Jackson, breakdancing, and other American symbols (this movie takes place in the present, but apparently Odessa is about 20 years behind.)  He speaks in broken English…but he is the Tour’s translator.  Grandfather is an anti-Semitic cranky old man who calls Jonathan “The Jew.”  He thinks that he is blind…yet he is the driver of the Trabant.  Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. (a pair of female border collies named Mikki and Mouse) is Grandfather’s “seeing eye b***h” dog who comes along for the ride.  As odd as they are to Jonathan, he is just as odd to them.  Jonathan dresses in a black suit and wears thick glasses, sports a fanny pack, and is a vegetarian (the last one is something that totally confuses them.)  Jonathan wants to visit his grandfather’s shtetl (a small town or village with a large Jewish population in pre-Holocaust Central and Eastern Europe) in Trachimbrod.  He meets an old woman named Lista (Laryssa Lauret), a fellow collector who might hold the answers to Jonathan’s questions…and might even be able to resolve something from Grandfather’s dark past.

Schreiber wrote and directed this adaptation of Foer’s 2001 novel of the same name (Wood’s character is named after the author.)  It received overwhelming acclaim upon its initial release…but I had never heard of it.  If Schreiber had been truly faithful to the book, I could imagine that Foer was an old Jewish man (apparently, according to the production notes, Schreiber thought that same thing.)  Foer was actually born in 1977, so he is certainly not old.  Unfortunately, the first half of the movie is funny.  The second half of the movie is tedious and depressing.

The acting is okay.  Wood had just completed the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he filmed this one.  He is a good straight man for the goofiness of Alex and Grandfather.  Hutz and Leskin could be a funny comedy team.  Hutz is very amusing in his first film role.

It’s hard to say much about Everything is Illuminated.  While I applaud Schreiber’s attempt to write and direct his own movie, the last half of it wasn’t worth sitting through.  Maybe you could pick up the DVD and watch only the first half (you can tell things are going to stop being humorous when the music and lighting gets dark.)  For me, this movie wasn’t very illuminating.

Get the soundtrack featuring a score composed by Paul Cantelon and songs by Gogol Bordello, three songs by Leningrad, and more:

Get the novel written by Jonathan Safran Foer that the movie is based on:

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