Everything Is Illuminated Movie Review
Foer's novel pitches the reader between the past and the present, between a magical-realist historical chronicle and the first-person reflections of a Ukrainian translator who makes hilarious mincemeat of the English language. Foer's story follows the journey undertaken by an obsessive personal historian -- named Jonathan Safran Foer -- from New York to the remote Ukrainian village from which his grandfather escaped under the shadow of the Nazis. Accompanying him are the malapropism-prone Alex and Alex's irascible and eccentric grandfather who has ghosts of his own to bury. For all its stylistic bric-a-brac, the ideas of reconciling with the past and of survivors struggling to exorcise themselves of guilt resonate eloquently throughout the novel.
To his credit, Schreiber does get the book's fable-like tone right, and he stays true to the quest at the heart of the book. But in adapting Foer's historically layered work, Schreiber also amputates large sections of it. This is understandable for reasons of narrative (and just plain budgetary) economy, so long as the pillars that hold up the narrative remain intact. Everything Is Illuminated, however, is so badly adapted that the context for its grief, pain, even humor, feels hacked away. As a result, the movie feels adrift as it plods onward towards a riverbank that marks a meeting ground between the past and the present
Schreiber tries to capture nuances of atmosphere -- the quirkiness of its characters and the strange beauty of the countryside -- as the trio meets up with Lista (Laryssa Lauret) a beatific old woman and survivor of the pogroms, who now watches over what remains of the decimated Jewish village. But the writer-director never confidently finds his footing. He shunts us from the neurotic Jonathan (Elijah Wood) to the whimsical Alex (Eugene Hutz) to Alex's scowling grandfather (Boris Leskin), giving us snippets of grief or confusion connected with their mutual pasts, before landing on a heart-to-heart between the grandfather and Lista, both of whom share the same torment but deal with it in opposite ways.
Those familiar with the novel (and even those who are not) will find in the movie what it intends to do, but never quite achieves. Where is the urgency to this subject matter? Schreiber's direction is typical of a talented artist (in this case, an actor) grappling with a medium he doesn't fully fathom. He has an obvious deference to both novel and to the cinematic form, but that ultimately neuters and paralyzes him. As a result, the energy and sense of purpose is missing, replaced by beautiful images that have little immediacy.
Luckily, Illuminated merits creditable performances from its small ensemble. Elijah Wood, in his fishbowl-glasses and timid demeanor, plays the nebbish variation on the "disquieting oddball" -- of which he played the feral, homicidal variation in this past spring's Sin City. We never quite know what to make of Wood's character but his presence is arresting enough. Hutz and Leskin manage their characters' comic personalities and approximate their literary incarnations wonderfully, and ring false only when Schreiber makes his precious bid to humanize them. Still, the humanistic undercurrents in Foer's story are so compelling that, for all its missteps, Schreiber's adaptation finds a glint of profoundness upon Lauret's appearance. Through her haunted eyes and quivering delivery, history, however momentarily, finds its voice.
I am illuminated, yellow.