Everything Is Illuminated (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I want to give actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber credit for making his behind-the-camera debut a film that means something to him. One can easily see how Everything Is Illuminated could be a deeply personal effort. Unfortunately, the meaning a project has for a director is not always conveyed to an audience. This is one such case. This movie is sloppy and disjointed - an unsatisfying melodrama built upon a shaky foundation of contrivances, coincidences, and plot holes. Although there's an aura of sincerity that keeps the picture from teetering into the "bad" category (it stays rooted in mediocrity), it fails more often than it works, and sitting through the 110-minute running length can be a tedious experience.

Jonathan (Elijah Wood, post-Frodo Baggins) is a "collector." He obsessively catalogs items pertaining to his family, then pins them to his bedroom wall - everything from old photographs to his grandmother's false teeth. When he is given a photo taken in 1940s Ukraine of his grandfather with the mysterious woman Augusta, his curiosity is piqued. So he travels to the Ukraine and hooks up with Heritage Tours, a family-owned business that specializes in helping rich Jews locate their dead ancestors. With the aid of twenty-something Alex Jr. (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather, Alex Sr. (Boris Leskin), Jonathan begins a road trip into his past.

For a while, Everything Is Illuminated achieves a witty tone and moves along at a decent pace. During the first half-hour, there's unforced humor as Jonathan and Alex Jr. (whose grip of English is not the greatest) struggle to communicate. Unfortunately, like most road trips, this one doesn't take long to begin meandering. The trio's final destination, and the revelations that occur there, are anti-climactic. These are supposed to bring an emotional catharsis, but I had to stifle a yawn. I never connected emotionally in any way with these characters, and such a bond is necessary if the "surprising" climax is to have meaning. Beyond that, Everything Is Illuminated doesn't know when to end. Like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going, dragging on for at least 10 minutes longer than it needs to. And the screenplay demands that everything be spelled out for the viewer. Less exposition and a few more quiet moments might have lent a sense of tragedy to a climax that is polluted with too many words and too little emotional power.

The acting is spotty. Elijah Wood is stiff, but that's probably because he's playing someone who is closed off. Jonathan has some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, but the movie isn't interested in exploring that subject, other than to use it as a device to get him to the Ukraine. The two non-English actors are credible, with Boris Leskin filling the grumpy old man role while Eugene Hutz is the occasionally bumbling sidekick. The best parts of the movie have nothing to do with the dramatic aspects; they occur early when Hutz does an amusing voiceover describing his character's likes and dislikes. (He's a big Michael Jackson fan, and can dance like John Travolta.)

For Everything is Illuminated to work, the viewer has to care about the characters, but there's not enough on screen for the bond to be formed. Jonathan is a hollow shell - there's nothing there except a strange guy who puts things in ziploc bags. And the two Ukranians aren't much better fleshed out. Perhaps part of the problem is the degree of cutting necessary to cram Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 novel into less than two hours. Or perhaps the problem is that Liev Schreiber's aptitude in front of the camera doesn't translate to the other side of the production. The problem seems to be more one of execution than poor source material. Regardless of the reason, Everything Is Illuminated left me cold and in the dark.

Everything Is Illuminated (United States, 2005)

Director: Liev Schreiber
Cast: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin
Screenplay: Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Paul Cantelon
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1