Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin
Written by: Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Directed by: Liev Schreiber
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images/violence, sexual content and language
Language: Ukrainian, Russian, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/03/2005
IMDB

Everything Is Illuminated (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Past Perfect

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In his first outing as writer/director, actor Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate) takes on Jonathan Safran Foer's crafty 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated. The story follows Jonathan (Elijah Wood) as he travels to Ukraine to find out more about his late grandfather. He hires Alex (Eugene Hutz) to be his translator and Alex's grandfather (Boris Leskin) to be the driver. Also along for the ride is grandfather's "seeing eye bitch," Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.

Told in three different voices (Jonathan, Alex, and a historical flashback), the novel slips back and forth between viewpoints, and in this way it effortlessly morphs from sidesplitting humor to heartbreaking tragedy.

Schreiber only has the one viewpoint -- the movie screen -- and his biggest hurdle is the character of Alex, who gets all the laughs in the novel with his unique English translations, coming up with phrases like "manufacturing Z's" instead of "sleeping." Alex must now also serve to translate the very serious Holocaust stories that come in the film's second half (in Ukrainian) and he must drop his hilarious translations to do it.

Nevertheless, Schreiber is clearly aware of this hiccup, and he does an admirable job of smoothing it out. The film's quiet, exquisitely timed shots with their weird humor peg Schreiber as a Western counterpart to Aki Kaurismaki (The Man Without a Past). Mostly, the filmmaker targets his vigilant lens on the three characters, rambling through the countryside -- very often lost -- in their tiny lawnmower-engine car (called a Trabant), each turning over their preconceived notions of one another.

Schreiber establishes a bittersweet tone right from the start that helps glue the tragic and comic together, bringing his actors in on the same wavelength. Each character gets a moment to drop his guard, such as the vegetarian Jonathan dropping his lone baked potato from the dinner table, or Alex being intimidated when asking directions from a group of roadside workers.

Hutz, a gypsy/punk singer in his first acting role, is perfect as Alex, but Wood has the truly difficult role. Schreiber has added new depth to the Jonathan character from the book, and Wood carefully embodies it, using his hauntingly huge blue eyes to reflect the bittersweet inside the comedy followed by the sadness inside the tragedy.

Everything Is Illuminated also pauses from time to time to appreciate simple beauty, such as an amber-encased grasshopper or a field of sunflowers. The journey ends with an especially lovely, ragged calm. Everything, truly, has been illuminated.

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