Everything is Illuminated

dir: Liev Schreiber
[img_assist|nid=1222|title=Not as quirky as it looks|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=320|height=500]
A film can be crafted with care, and attention. It can be visually arresting, thematically complex, and cover intense, powerful events. It can have decent acting performances, and a literate script with a non-conventional narrative and a story that is anything but formulaic. And it can still do nothing for me.

I’ve heard tell that Jonathan Safran Foer is a good writer, and I have no real reason to dispute that until I read at least a few of his books. There are already plenty of books on my to-be-read list, so it might be a while before I get to him. All I can say is that the screenplay, based on his book of the same name, is interesting.

The film, directed by Liev Schreiber, just doesn’t grab me. I’ve watched it twice now, and it just doesn’t grab me at all. I watch it at a cold remove, distanced from what happens even as I contemplate what is going on.

The protagonist, played by Elijah Wood, is a deliberately ambiguous character. He is a pretty repressed kind of guy, with one suit of clothing, slicked down hair and a pair of glasses whose lenses magnify his eyes to the point of enormity. He may be the protagonist, but he doesn’t do or say too much.

The narrator and the protagonist are not the same person. The narrator, ever-present with his little explanations and elaborations, comes into it down the track.

The protagonist’s name is Jonathan Safran Foer. He collects stuff. We see him as a child popping odd things into snap-seal plastic bags, with a little note on their provenance. As an adult he has a huge wall of stuff, from the seemingly important to the banal. It is not valuable things that he collects: they seem almost random in their qualities and importance.

After the death of his grandma, he embarks on a trip to the Ukraine, to track down a woman who saved his Jewish grandfather during World War II.

He avails himself of a service provided artfully by a guy who must really be a mover and shaker in his home town of Odessa. Alex (Eugene Hutz) is the narrator, and a bit of a crazy freak. He has taught himself a version of English that I wish would be adopted instead of what is commonly referred to as the Queen’s English.

He regularly butchers standard English into some prime linguistic cuts. Since Jonathan (who he calls Jon Fan) rarely speaks, Alex fills up the spaces with his constant stream of entertaining inanities.

But Alex isn’t the only one on this journey into the Heart of Ukraininess. He has his blind grandfather (Boris Leskin) along, and their dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior, named after, obviously, Sammy Davis Junior. The grandfather claims that he is blind, despite being able to see clearly, in a major bit of quirk, and demands that his dog be allowed to come along, despite being completely mad. They refer to the dog as his “seeing eye bitch”. That’s a joke. I DEMAND that you laugh. Now!

Safran Foer is terrified of the dog, and isn’t particularly liked by the driver and his grandson. They have a particular resentment towards him, because he’s Jewish, or because he’s wealthy (they think), or because he’s from America.

Alex doesn’t really dislike Jonathan, and adores American culture. He calls himself a premium dancer, having mastered the dark and very contemporary art of breakdancing. He seems completely intrigued by Jonathan, and is perplexed more by anything that he does not match his idea of what an American would be like.

The fearful Foer stumbles along blindly trying to find a village called Tramopaline or something similar to that. The only real similarity is that the village starts with T. They search and search, but the place seems not to exist.

The map-reading skills of the people in the car, including the dog, are on a level with those crazy kids in the Blair Witch Project, so they are lost, lost I say. But wouldn’t you know it, they’ll find their way somewhere all the same.

The strange thing is, the non-blind blind grandfather seems to know something about how to get somewhere that no longer exists. How could that be?

There is a mystery here, an intense mystery as to what happened to this mysterious village, but readers of this review who haven’t seen the flick or read the book would be better served by finding out for themselves what happened.

They eventually turn up to a house surrounded by fields of sunflowers which stretch as far as the eye can see. The person in the house does not know if World War II is still on or not. It’s probably safe to say that she doesn’t have a tv or a broadband connection.

The manner in which Jonathan collects stuff comes into the story again in a more profound way, when the same habit is represented in another person, who has an altogether different reason for being a collector.

This sounds like an interesting film, and I guess it is. It’s just that I felt so far removed from what was going on that little really impacted on me. When a terrible secret is revealed, and then a character takes a tragic course of action, I didn’t feel affected by it at all. In fact, I felt a bit miffed that I didn’t feel anything for these characters. That made me hate it and everyone involved with not. No, I’m not being serious.

The biggest problem with the film is not the way Non-Tobey Maguire – Elijah Wood plays the character: it’s the character. I’ve seen Wood act well, act adequately, act irritatingly in a bunch of flicks. I don’t think he’s the problem. The character is just not that interesting, in fact, he’s not interesting at all. The flick tries to overcompensate by giving more quirks to Alex, but then it unbalances the film.

It has a point (the film that is), it’s well shot, the choice of music is interesting, and it ends on a powerful note, far more so that the preceding hours. But even then it’s a whimper more than a scream.

I feel bad for the film because it deserved to be better appreciated, or it deserved to be a better film, I’m not sure. It’s just that, whilst I don’t doubt that other people might enjoy it, I found it a bit too flat and dull to recommend it to anyone.

6 times I wanted to gouge my eyes out in the hope that it would speed up time whilst watching this film out of 10

“I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” – Everything is Illuminated