Everything is Illuminated is the directorial debut of actor Liev Shreiber. You know, the creepy guy from Phantoms? Besides directing he also adapted the book by the same name from author Jonathan Safran Foer. I always feel wary when approaching an actor's vanity project but I noted with relief that Shreiber does not appear in the movie so I hoped that he had avoided the 'vanity' part of the project in this adaptation. He is fairly successful, but still manages to step into some familiar traps.
Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood), a Jewish-American who wears glasses made from the proverbial coke-bottle bottoms, travels to the Ukraine to find the village where his deceased grandfather grew up. He enlists the aid of a tour company that specializes in showing Jewish people around their ancestral lands. The company consists of crochety grandfather Alexander (Boris Leskin), who likes to pretend that he's blind, and his grandson Alex (Eugene Hutz), who idolizes American pop culture and speaks okay English but with a severely abused vocabulary. They travel around lost in the beautiful Ukrainian countryside, trying to find any trace of the village.
Everything is Illuminated starts out as your basic gentle comedy about the disconnection people feel when encountering another culture. Jonathan acts confused and unsure as he deals with the eccentricities of Alex and Alex, while both of them try to puzzle out this young jewish kid who won't eat meat and likes to collect odd things, like potatoes, grasshoppers, and bottles of hand lotion. The movie slowly shifts tone to more of a mystery as we travel with these oddballs who can't find one Jewish village that apparently disappeared sometime during World War II (uh-oh).
I wanted to like this movie more than I do, but I have problems with it. I like the characters, but they have too many familiar characteristics. I can't count how many times have I seen wacky foreign types misuse English and enjoy outdated American culture (Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd did that bit to death a long time ago). I knew that despite their differences, the characters would part ways with a newfound respect for each others' differences and similarities. I knew that Jonathan, despite his phobia of dogs, would eventually be best friends with the grandfather's psychotic seeing-eye bitch.
I thought Liev Shreiber's direction was too self-concious. Too many scenes call attention to the way they were photographed and to the way the characters are staged. I am probably being too hard on this first-time director. Steven Spielberg does this all the time but that doesn't stop me from enjoying his movies. I will give the director one credit: the movie is well cast with mostly Ukrainian actors which brings the story a needed deal of credibility. Elijah Wood does a fine job as the clueless, eccentric American, and Eugene Hutz is interesting to watch as the narrator of this story.
Despite that I don't much like the movie, I thought it is a real shame that the DVD release of Everything is Illuminated is so blah. As it should be for any DVD release, the sound and picture are fine, however this DVD came with almost no extras - only some uninteresting deleted scenes and trailers. It is a crying shame that there is no director's commentary, because I would be greatly interested in hearing about a first-time director's struggle to get a story he obviously cares about to the screen. The movie was filmed in Eastern Europe - I'm sure that must have presented some interesting challenges and would have made great anecdotes for a commentary.
I am probably being too harsh on this little film. It tells a story worth telling and it is told in a competent manner. Liev Shreiber does his job of getting good uniform performances from all his actors. And despite my misgivings about some of his choices, he never commits the cardinal sin of boring me, which is a phenomenal accomplishment considering the vast majority of this movie consists of 3 oddballs and their deranged dog driving around the countryside. Still, it could have been better.