Everything Is Illuminated

As an actor, Liev Shreiber brings thoughtful and expressive intensity to his roles. Rarely the leading man, he tends to upstage big name stars with his smartly nuanced and eccentric performances. So it comes as no surprise that for his directorial debut, he chose to adapt a novel most would consider unfilmable.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-seller Everything Is Illuminated has been called “madly complex,” and “filled with great linguistic imagination” — not exactly the virtues Hollywood looks for in a movie. Prudently, Shreiber has amputated one of the novel’s dual plot lines and focused the story, but takes few chances with the material. The film is long on quirks and lovely images, but lacks a sense of purpose.

Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood) is an obsessive family “collector.” Armed with a fanny pack full of Ziploc bag, he preserves random bits of personal detritus — an antique brooch, a boiled potato, a handful of soil — in an attempt to capture his history. After learning that his mysterious grandfather was rescued from the Nazis, he takes to find the woman who saved him.

Traveling from one remote Ukrainian village to another, he’s accompanied by Alex (Eugene Hutz), a young hipster guide prone to amusing malapropisms; Alex’s scowling and anti-Semitic grandfather (Boris Leskin); and a dog named Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the grandfather’s anti-social “seeing-eye bitch.”

What starts as a haphazard quest for one family’s story turns into a deeper examination of the personal and political importance of memory, the idea that one cannot ignore or escape the past no matter how painful the truth.

Shreiber’s offbeat approach lands somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, and for about two-thirds of the film it works pretty well. Understanding that road movies are more about the journey than the destination, the director handles the characters’ shifting insights with finesse, and offers some terrific moments of comedic cross-cultural bonding. However, the film seems to have misplaced its guts, and in the final reel, Jonathan’s quest crosses the line into unearned sentimentality. The history and secrets revealed, while moving, seem out of place and ultimately ring false.

The small ensemble is terrific. Wood, dressed in a dark suit and oversized glasses, is a precise little exclamation point of a man. He says little, but his presence is always striking, and makes a great straight man for Hutz’s charismatic doofus Alex. Bursting with nervous energy and frantic gestures, Hutz, a first-time actor (he’s the singer for the gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello) is eminently watchable. Leskin masterfully navigates the grandfather’s comic personality, but misses the darker implications of his character.

This isn’t a vanity project; there are no “actorly” moments or over-the-top statements. Shreiber is reaching for something substantial and even profound: to emphasize importance of memory, and our responsibility to pass the lessons of the Holocaust from one generation to the next. But while he avoids grand revelations and heated melodrama, he forgets to provide a proper context for the grief and pain. A more daring commitment to both the story’s humor and pathos might have provided greater insight and turned a modest success into something truly worth remembering.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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