Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those novels that is extremely difficult to adapt. Actor Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate, The Sum of All Fears) makes his directorial debut with this arduous task ahead of him. The result is interesting. Everything is Illuminated is a fantastic looking movie, but the drama and emotion present in the book does not quite translate over. What is left is a quirky road trip between an American, a weird Ukrainian who mangles English and loves Michael Jackson, an old man who thinks he is blind, and his deranged seeing-eye dog.

The plot should be more moving, but settles for light comedy until the end, when Schreiber (who also adapted the novel) turns on the waterworks and begins peeling away the layers of secrets that envelop the film. Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood, Green Street Hooligans, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is in the Ukraine in order to uncover the identity of Augustine, a woman who helped Foer's grandfather survive the Holocaust. All he has is a picture of the two of them standing in a field. Wood is a fine actor, but his character is a bit too emotionally inert for the film, and ends up sucking away much of the drama. Foer is a collector. He wears a black suit and huge glasses that make Wood's eyes even larger. He collects anything related to his family history and carefully places them in Ziploc bags and puts them on his wall. He displays few emotions, and instead acts like a robot for much of the film.

Foer is looking for Trachimbrod, a small town nobody has heard of. His tour guide is the weird Alex (Eugene Hutz, Kill Your Idols), who is also the narrator of the film. Alex's grasp of the English language is tenuous at best, and his commentary and conversations with Foer provide much of the comic relief. His grandfather (Boris Leskin, Men in Black, A Couch in New York) is the driver. Grandfather is crotchety and has a strong distaste for rich Jewish expatriates, ironic given that this is the target demographic for his tour company. Together with Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Grandfather's dog), the three set off on a quest that is becomes more emotional than physical as it comes to its conclusion.

Schreiber has frequent flashbacks to World War II to reveal insights into some of the characters' lives. The eventual reveal at the end comes off as anticlimactic, only because these flashbacks already tell the story. The visual look of the film makes up for the not quite "illuminating" nature of the drama. Schreeber does have a good eye for visuals, and he uses it continuously. The Ukraine is both run-down and bucolically beautiful. As the trio nears the end of their journey, rural Ukraine absolutely shimmers with beauty. Meanwhile, Jonathan's house is a weird amalgamation of junk strewn everywhere into neat little baggies. However, all the style in the world cannot make up for a story that is sometimes, sadly, underwhelming. There was a good movie somewhere in Everything is Illuminated, it just didn't quite make its way out.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated PG-13 for disturbing images/violence, sexual content, and language.

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