Everything Is Illuminated

Movies Reviews
Everything Is Illuminated

Authentic Eastern European supporting cast saves Liev Schreiber’s fumbled adaptation

Director: Liev Schreiber
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Starring: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin
Studio info: Warner Independent Pictures, 100 minutes

In most works where the main character is a writer—and thus a blatant stand-in for the author—it’s usual to see, as an act of humility, the surrounding characters shining as more loveable and problematic than the humble, shy protagonist. In Everything is Illuminated—the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed, intricate tapestry of a novel in which the main character shares the author’s name—this is more true than ever: Elijah Wood’s rigid “Jonathan Safran Foer” is upstaged by his colorful Eastern European co-stars.

The story follows the fictional Foer’s meandering journey in search of the mysterious Ukrainian village of Trachimbrod, where a woman who supposedly saved his family from the Nazis lived. For the film’s first half, director Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate, Scream) wisely chooses to avoid the exhaustive history of Trachimbrod from Foer’s original, and pares the story down to, essentially, a present day roadtrip—a compelling search for Oz in the bucolic fields and tank graveyards of Eastern Europe. But when a series of flashbacks interrupts the journey with shocking revelations that should, in theory, elevate the film and break our hearts (as it tries hard to do), the narrative loses steam. As a result the denouement veers dangerously close to being a string of amazing coincidences. Regardless, Eugene Hutz (who, in his first film, plays the protagonist’s charismatic, jump-suit-clad translator, Alex) and Boris Leskin (as Alex’s angry grandfather) carry the film beautifully through its rural landscape.

Ukranian immigrant Hutz, who fronts the Slavic punk band Gogol Bordello, was born for the role of Alex. His malapropisms in English never grow tiresome while—completely devoid of irony—he delivers silly lines like, “I also enjoy writing, but I feel I was born to be an accountant.” But it’s when he loses his cool in a gripping scene involving a group of intimidating, roadside workers that Hutz proves he’s not just a goofy guy blessed with an easily inhabited role, but an authentically gifted actor.

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