...for all its importance as a message picture and for all the subtlety of its filmmaking, the movie never quite feels like it has as much to say as it thinks it does.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Don't let anybody tell you that reviewing is anything but subjective. I wish there were a magic set of rules, or at least guidelines, that movie or art or book critics could follow that would lead them to the same conclusions, but you and I know such rules don't exist. Reviewing is a matter of analyzing all the relevant data and then going with a gut feeling. Sometimes, a film appears to do everything wrong and the reviewer likes it anyway. Other times, everything about a film seems right, but critics go away with mixed opinions. Such is the case with 2005's "Everything Is Illuminated." The movie is thematically meaningful, sweet, moving, humorous, and lovingly crafted. Yet it left me wondering if it was really worth my time.

I'm reminded of classics like "Citizen Kane" and "2001" as exaggerated examples of films that some viewers find overwhelmingly powerful and others find underwhelmingly boring. I kept watching "Everything Is Illuminated" admiring its craft, its cinematography, its music, its acting, its messages, its sincerity, and thinking, yes, I should really be liking this. But I would have no desire to view it again, nor would I probably have wanted to watch it the first time knowing what I do now.

At least three things went wrong for me: (1) the pace was too slow; (2) the payoff was too vague; (3) the message was too obvious. Of course, these criticisms are unfair. The pace of life itself is slow; that doesn't make life not worth living. The payoff is vague but it is intentionally ambiguous to make the viewer think more about it. And the message, although one we all know and appreciate, is nonetheless of enormous significance. Maybe film criticism, like life, can often be unfair, dealing as it does with intangibles like human emotion.

A first-time directorial effort from actor Liev Schreiber, he also wrote the screenplay from a first novel by author Jonathan Safran Foer. Considering the "firsts" here, the result is still a pretty good film, whether or not I happened to appreciate it. It stars Elijah Wood as a young Jewish American whose name is not coincidentally Jonathan Safran Foer. Jonathan is a compulsively neat, conservative-appearing fellow, always dressed in a dark suit and tie, always wearing large, horn-rimmed glasses, and always collecting things. I wasn't sure about the glasses at first, their seeming a mere affectation, but like almost everything else in the story they have their symbolic significance. The odd, old-fashioned glasses serve as a metaphor for Jonathan's ever-observing, ever-searching mind. The story is about his search. Moreover, because Jonathan is a collector, we come to see the meaning behind his collecting obsession as the film moves to its conclusion.

The story begins with Jonathan deciding to go to Ukraine to search for the woman who, over half a century before, saved his Jewish grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. As we might expect, it is the journey as much as the destination that is important to the film, and the first two-thirds of the story involves Jonathan in a series of comical episodes along the way.

Jonathan's Ukrainian guide, Alex Perchov (Eugene Hutz), narrates things in a voice-over while writing it all down. Alex is an amusing chap who loves American movies and hip-hop music. He also speaks in a fractured English that captures some of the movie's truths while also conveying some of its early droll tone: "Many girls want to be carnal with me, because I am such a premium dancer." Hutz's character brings to the picture a note of warmth and understanding, too, especially in the last quarter hour.

Along with Alex and Jonathan comes Alex's grandfather (Boris Leskin), a grumpy fellow who claims to be blind but isn't and who hates Jews but takes them on tours to find their ancestors because he likes their money; and a deranged seeing-eye dog named Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. Together, this odd company make up a pleasant road trip whose destination we can easily anticipate. There is one scene in particular I liked, during dinner in a hotel, a scene that involves a potato that reminded me of a similar episode in the Jack Nicholson film "Five Easy Pieces." The potato business is indicative of the low-key humor and thought in "Everything Is Illuminated."

Anyway, most of the film is taken up by the group's search for the woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather in a little town called Trachimrod that nobody in Ukraine has ever heard of. The town is on no maps, and nobody they meet along the way seems to know about it. Until they come to an old lady living in a small house in the middle of acres of sunflowers. It is here that the film makes a sudden turn into the very serious, and Jonathan and Alex and the grandfather discover more than they expected to find.

Obviously, author Foer patterned his main character after himself, and Elijah Wood does a splendid job communicating Jonathan's longing, his isolation, and his relative innocence. Wood's boyish charm works well playing a young man whose life will be forever changed and edified by his experiences. Even more substantial, though, may be Hutz's Alex, whose character changes more than any other in the film. He is a delight throughout the story.

The musical score, too, very much folk-inflected, is a delight, partly bittersweet and melancholy, partly joyous and life-affirming. Yet the movie has its distractions. Jonathan is at first very stiff and uncomfortable, hardly uttering a word and never breaking a smile for the first half hour of the film. He's so buttoned-up, it's hard to get close to him, to sympathize with him and his seemingly nutty obsessions. Then, when the film's revelations about the past finally materialize in flashback, they're obscure, nebulous, hard to follow. And the movie's disclosures about culture clashes, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Nazi atrocities are hardly news. Yes, the film builds to a powerful climax, but it inches there so slowly that a few viewers may give up along the way. In addition, it reaches its climax too soon, and the things that follow it feel sentimental and overlong.

But perhaps I carp overmuch. The movie does more in its little hour-and-a-half than most films three times its length. And the title? It comes from the line "Everything is illuminated in the light of the past." There are some things we must not forget, and only those who collect pieces of the past can remind us how we are all linked together in this vast conspiracy called life. Jonathan collects things not only to help him remember them but to help those who come after him to remember. As J.D. Salinger wrote in "Catcher in the Rye": "Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.... Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."

In its way, no matter if you like the movie or not, "Everything Is Illuminated" is poetry.

The picture quality could hardly be bettered. The video engineers retain most of the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer that is clean and sharp. What little grain one notices gives the image a pleasantly realistic texture; otherwise, one notices only the well-delineated contours, vibrant colors, and unblemished appearance.

This is a very quiet film, with a soft, understated soundtrack. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is probably overkill, but it does present an exemplary front-channel stereo spread, excellent clarity, and good tonal balance. Only a touch of musical ambience reinforcement reaches the surround speakers, while the frequency range and dynamic impact are limited because they are largely unnecessary to the story.

There is really only one extra of importance on the disc: about eighteen minutes' worth of additional scenes. Some of these scenes are more surrealistic than anything in the film; others less so, to the point of being too obvious. I was hoping they might shed further light on the film's themes, but they don't add much. The disc also includes a widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty-six scene selections but no chapter insert; English as the only available spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
It is, as I've said, hard to fault a film that is so earnest as "Everything Is Illuminated." Although I have not read the book on which it is based, I'm sure Schreiber did a fine job condensing it to the succinct little package we have in the movie. It is a film whose spiritual journey ends in enlightenment and growth through self-discovery. Can't knock that.

Yet for all its importance as a message picture and for all the subtlety of its filmmaking, the movie never quite feels like it has as much to say as it thinks it does. I left the film wondering too often just what the characters were thinking and whether the film's few admittedly good passages were ultimately worth my time. In the end, it may be a toss-up: some moments of fine drama and touching humor, interspersed with long dry spells.


Film Value