Elijah Wood does not want to be viewed as a hobbit forever. Sure, Lord Of The Rings helped to bloat his bank account, but that role is not enough to assure career longevity outside of the geek community. In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind he plays an identity thief who likes to gather panties, and in Sin City he portrays a psychopathic version of Harry Potter. Freaks and weirdoes appear to be his new direction of choice, a far cry from the days of Radio Flyer.
Everything Is Illuminated is the latest project for Wood, where he plays-- you guessed it--an odd duck. The movie is based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is the same name given to Elijah’s character. Dressing in perfectly fitted suits with slicked hair and oversized brown glasses, Jonathan doesn’t appear like typical kids his age. He also has a giant wall filled with family memorabilia from over the years, ranging from charms to chunks of hair to dentures. Jonathan is an obsessive collector, spending his days placing random items he deems significant into Ziploc bags, to be displayed upon the wall. Needless to say, he probably doesn’t have too many friends come over, if he has any friends at all.
As his grandmother takes her final breaths of life, she hands him a cricket charm and an old photograph of his grandfather standing with a woman, and asks him to track her down. This photograph sends him on a wild journey to a small Ukrainian town that was wiped off the map when the Nazi’s invaded. His grandfather survived because of the woman in the photograph, and he seeks to find her and discover the truth about what happened.
When he arrives in Ukraine for a Jewish heritage tour, he is greeted by a wacky assortment of characters: Alex (Eugene Hutz)- a guy in his 20’s who speaks in broken English, his kind-of blind grandfather (Boris Leskin), and his ‘seeing-eye bitch’, Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. The grandfather is not truly blind, as he is the one driving the automobile, and he likes to curse in his native tongue as the deranged dog growls and spasms. Alex serves as the translator for the trip, even though he can barely get a coherent sentence out in English. His attempts to do so are amusing and he steals scenes with his playful, sweet-natured demeanor. There’s a great scene where they sit down for dinner and stare at Jonathan like a three-headed monster when he announces he is a Vegetarian, as they watch him play around with a potato. That is a feeling I am certainly familiar with myself, when surrounded by carnivorous folks. “What is wrong with you?” is a common question asked along with requests to pass the soda.
Faster than you can say, “What the heck?!”, the movie shifts tones and warps into another story entirely when they find the long lost town of Trachimbrod, and uncover the story behind the woman in the photograph. Since the subject we’re dealing with is the Holocaust, these scenes are a blend of serious, nostalgic, and upsetting emotions. It’s a difficult jump to find yourself laughing at silly gimmicks one instant and then yanked without warning into something so tragically real and unfunny the next. Maybe it’s me, but I prefer my quirky comedies without a side of Holocaust.
I haven’t read the novel, (which many people adore) but it’s my understanding that it involves several stories and narratives intertwined into a greater whole. In the movie version, we are given one fairly straight- forward story and then other stories are introduced towards the end, with existential and whimsical angles. It felt a bit like a twist ending, without the cheesy supernatural themes generally associated with them. But still, it didn’t really work, and left me feeling like I'd watched two different movies that didn’t fit together.
Liev Schreiber (Manchurian Candidate remake) is a talented actor whose work I have always enjoyed. He wrote and directed Everything Is Illuminated and spent years working on it, which makes me feel bad in saying that maybe this particular novel was over his head as a first time project. It's not that I wanted the entire thing to be funny, it's that the parts that were supposed to be touching didn't work and left me missing the parts that did. Tonal confusions and directing mishaps aside, the acting is stellar, especially by musician-turned-actor Eugene Hutz. Alongside Jonathan’s rigidness and the grandfather’s inner turmoils, Alex shines as the entertaining heart and soul of the movie. The classical music along with the colorful scenery gives the picture a feeling of enchantment, and the humor is delightful. There is a really great story buried in here and while the movie doesn’t fully expose it, I look forward to reading the book and experiencing it in all its intended glory.