The novel Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is easily one of the most narratively challenging novels of the last five years—so challenging in fact, that some critics and readers found it gimmicky and pretentious. In the novel, a young writer named "Jonathan Safran Foer" travels to the Ukraine to learn the truth about his grandfather’s experiences during World War II. His guides on this journey are his translator Alex, a young Ukrainian man enamored of U.S. pop culture, Alex’s crotchety grandfather, and a wild dog named Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. (no, that’s not a misprint). The structural novelty is that some of the chapters are narrated by Alex in very broken, malaprop-strewn English. Interspersed with Foer’s journey are stories of his ancestors, following them from several hundred years ago up through his grandfather’s life in war-torn Europe. These ancestral tales are filled with myth and magic, often eschewing realism in favor of a fable-like quality.
Thus, long story short, first-time writer-director Liev Schreiber (an actor most recognizable from the remake of The Manchurian Candidate and the Scream trilogy) had his work cut out for him in undertaking this complicated tale. I wish I could say that the film embraced the novel’s lyrical humor and poetically fictional autobiography while tempering its occasional indulgences. Instead, the film dilutes the novel so much that the story is rendered almost meaningless. The ancestral stories have been eliminated, as has Alex’s back story, in an attempt to streamline the story into Foer’s (Elijah Wood) search for the truth about his grandfather. Where Schreiber misses the boat is that some of this back story imbues the central mystery with importance. Schreiber also changes key points about the World War II story, dulling their impact. Furthermore, the soundtrack is loud and obnoxious in an attempt to accentuate the culture clash (which is already obvious to begin with).
On the plus side, Schreiber has done some novel casting. First-timer Hutz is absolutely perfect as Alex, whose translating skills are shaky at best. Hutz (a musician who also appears on the soundtrack) has personality to spare, but the film never makes full use of the opportunity. Also good is Boris Leskin as Alex’s grandfather. Instead of just creating another "grumpy old man," Leskin makes the grandfather a three-dimensional character. Wood fares most poorly in Schreiber’s script for a number of reasons. First off, he doesn’t have the comic ability to convey the character’s neuroses or his disorientation in this foreign land. In many ways, the novel is Alex’s story, not Jonathan’s, but Schreiber wants to have it both ways by keeping Jonathan at the center while simultaneously making him an outsider–an aloof observer. Wood spends much of the movie silently staring, which doesn’t help us get to know his character (it also starts to kill the pace, after awhile). Also, a gimmick of Jonathan putting everything in Ziploc bags is overused—in the novel, Jonathan comes off as a kind of charming, neurotic eccentric; in Wood’s hands, he’s an emotionless alien. What’s missing is any real warmth or depth of feeling.
Watching Jonathan and Alex’s friendship develop is crucial to the book’s charm, but the film never lets these characters connect. As a result, when the secrets of the past are revealed, they don’t carry much weight (even though we know people have suffered), because the movie hasn’t given us anyone to really connect to. The film covers up so much of the heart of the story that in the end very little is actually illuminated.
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