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Almost everything is
on 28 December 2005
On very rare occasions, it's a good idea not to follow the book.
Jonathan Safran Foer's cult novel "Everything Is Illuminated" has a wild chronology, and the journey is sprinkled with magical realism and countless flashbacks to minor characters. It COULD be crammed into a film, but it would not be a very accessible one. In fact, it might be almost unwatchable.
Enter actor Liev Schreiber, who chopped out much of the backstory and focused on the "road movie in the Ukraine" storyline. No, it's not like the book. But taken on its own, "Everything Is Illuminated" is a a striking, humorous and poignant film. Schreiber should be proud.
Jonathan (Elijah Wood) has a funny fixation about remembering the past, which includes putting life souvenirs in plastic baggies and taping them to the wall. So his curiosity is piqued when his grandmother tells him of Augustina, a woman who rescued his grandfather during World War II. With only a ring and a photo to guide him, Jonathan travels to the Ukraine to find Augustine.
He's met at the station by Alex (Eugene Hutz), a hip-hop tour guide who speaks his own peculiar dialect, Alex's weird, melancholy grandad (Stephen Samudovsky), and grandad's "seeing eye b*tch." As they search the Ukraine for Augustine, if she is still alive, Jonathan begins to learn about the ways the past infringes on the present -- and a bit about himself as well.
Schreiber apparently decided to adapt "Everything Is Illuminated" when he began to chronicle his own family history, and discovered that it was strikingly similar to Foer's novel. For a beloved cult novel, editing and reshaping is a risky business. But in Schreiber's case, it becomes a whole different animal -- it retains the spirit of the original, if not the sense of history.
While this is Liev Schreiber's directorial debut, it doesn't feel like one. Instead, it feels polished and experienced, with beautiful cinematography that ranges from night skies to a field of dazzling sunflowers. In sepia-toned flashbacks, Schreiber follows the less-is-more rule by merely hinting at the Holocaust's horrors, which is, oddly enough, more effective.
And his script has pathos and anguish, but also plenty of humour (most of it provided by Hutz), such as the scene where he tries to figure out what a vegetarian is, prompting Wood to tell him firmly "Nothing! No meat!"... only to have both men ask what's wrong with him. The only problem is that at times the road-trip format gets a bit precious, and the storyline stalls once or twice.
Elijah Wood gives a remarkably subtle performance as a quiet, slightly neurotic young man who seems to be searching for something in the past to make him complete. Hutz balances him out with the colourful, slightly wonky Alex. He's both comic relief and a sort of wiser older brother for Jonathan. The plot revolves around these two, and they are balanced out well.
Okay, it's not the book. But then again, it really doesn't pretend to be. Instead, Liev Schreiber's "Everything Is Illuminated" is a bittersweet comedy that will leave you with a smile.