Are we there yet?
Review: Everything is Illuminated
|Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz take a trip in Everything is Illuminated.|
Road trip films by construction require little plot. Characters only need begin moving from point A towards some predetermined point B and, hopefully, along the way be interesting enough to keep an audience engaged. The journey can be a test of physical endurance, or be a spiritual voyage.
In The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara's passage is both a physical and spiritual test, in which his dream of breaking down the social, economic and nationalistic barriers that divide the peoples of South America solidifies. For Paul Giamatti's Miles, his wine country excursion in Sideways is a spiritual one that forces him to accept his life as it is and through that acceptance to find love.
In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's trek to find the town of Trachimbrod and the Ukrainian woman that saved his grandfather's life is meant to be a tale about human connections and family history. However, Liev Schreiber's screenplay and direction is filled with so much excess and pretentious direction those lofty goals are merely surface.
Since his grandfather's death, Jonathan (Elijah Wood) has fashioned himself a collector. Randomly bagging and cataloguing the things his family leaves behind, Jonathan is the unofficial family curator.
On a visit to his grandmother, he's handed a sepia toned photo of his grandfather and a woman named Augustine. According to family history, Augustine is the reason Jonathan's grandfather was able to escape to America before the Nazi's invaded.
Compelled to seek this woman out and to learn more about his family's past, Jonathan travels to the Ukraine where he's met by Alex (Eugene Hutz) and Alex's grandfather. Alex's family guides rich Jews around so they can, as Alex's grandfather puts it so succinctly, mourn the dead they left behind.
While Jonathan dresses like a mortician, Alex dresses like LL Cool J, circa his "I Need Love" days. Alex idolizes the Negro, hip hop and Michael Jackson. There's a scene in which Jonathan tries to explain why Alex's use of Negro isn't appropriate. It's a moment played witty and inventive, but comes off as painful and obvious.
And the obvious appears to be Schreiber's direction of choice. Within the first 20 minutes, Schreiber does all but hand us a set of cliff notes. All the iconic imagery and coded language that one associates with the Holocaust make an appearance before the end of the first act. As a result, where this story is going to take us should be of no surprise to anyone who's had minimal exposure to the fictionalized retellings of the Holocaust.
Such direction wouldn't be so problematic if Jonathan's journey had been filled with more engaging twists and turns and moments of genuine human connection. Yet, this being a tale of magic realism, proximity and cinematic serendipity will take the place of effort. In spite of Jonathan's passive nature and Alex's naivety, the two will be predestined to form some kind of bond. As a result, Jonathan will remain a frustratingly distant character, while Alex will never fully grow beyond being a one dimensional caricature.
This is a movie filled with knowing looks, artistically manufactured moments of awkwardness and shots of the moon that are designed to hint at deeper truths. But the forced wit and clash of culture clichés (Come on. Even the movie S.W.A.T. had a "I can't believe the vegetarian doesn't eat meat" moment) only serve to hinder what could have been an engaging story.
What's worse is that Alex's struggle to know his grandfather is easily more interesting than Jonathan's own quest to do the same. Maybe that was the point. That Alex, who doesn't even have to leave his own country, travels an emotionally greater distance than Jonathan, is meant to be ironic. Yet, why even keep the Jonathan character?
Used initially as a comedic device, Jonathan's need of Alex's translating services only continues to marginalize him. At the exact moment Jonathan should be making some kind of direct contact with the one person who has all the answers, he can't. Without Alex, Jonathan can't even interact with the world around him.
So does this mean that Everything is really Alex's story? As conveyed by Schreiber, I'd say no. Schreiber clearly identifies with Jonathan's quest. Maybe it's a story about both Alex and Jonathan? Well, neither character is significantly developed to give us the impression that we are watching, not one, but two stories occurring in parallel. So whose story is it? What is the story about? You'll have to ask Schreiber. As both author of the screenplay and the film's director, only he seems clear about the story he's trying to tell.
Charles Judson is a local screen and comic book writer and regular reviewer for cinemATL.