Everything is Illuminated

Director: Liev Schreiber

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Elijah Wood, with his naturally enormous puppy-dog eyes, wears the biggest big-ass glasses in what functions as an awfully hammy & superficial way to arrive at a visually "Jewish" character. These glasses only needed the Grouch Marx nose & mustache attached to become entirely the equivalent of, say, a Japanese character with buck teeth & the thick glasses.

Everything is IlluminatedSo it takes a while to embrace Jonathan Safran Foer as a real person instead of an overdrawn sideshow clown in Everything is Illuminated (2005), especially since Elijah otherwise adapts the acting style of a wooden dummy. His character has been described by a couple critics as interchangeable with the guy he plays in the live-action action-comic-book Sin City (2005).

Director Liev Schreiber is an actor, not a director or scriptwriter, & if this film is any indication, he should stick to acting. He has mistaken the precious for the dramatic, & whether it's his fault or the source marterial's fault, he's also mistaken stupidity for comedy. No wonder his own acting teacher at Yale discouraged him from being a playwright.

I watched this film after seeing a preview that made it look like it'd be a wonderfully eccentric story. But the film has very little of the amusing oddity the preview implied.

Also, in promos for the film we learn of Schreiber's own Ukranian heritage & feelings for his beloved grandfather drove him to adapt a fragment of an at the time (deservedly) unpublished novel by the real Jonathan Safran Foer who named the fiction character after himself. Schreiber put his heart & spirit into the adaptation, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the script was too awful for actors to be able to do much of merit.

Jonathan is a collector of random stuff that relates to his life & that of his family inclusive of recent ancestors, anything from dentures of the dead to a used condom. He keeps his collection in clear plastic ziploc sandwich bags & pins them to a wall, the wall being nearly covered with his display.

Items in his collection have lead him from America to the Ukraine in search of more junk relating to relations from before the war.

Everything about the film is phony artifice. The jokes are mere stupidness. Travelling in search of a vanished Jewish village in the company of a young man (Eugene Hutz, a bad singer & not an actor at all, who plays his character like an amateur Vaudevillian convinced the back row can't hear him unless he yells).

The young Ukranian is a bad translator, providing ample opportunity for unfunny jokes of bad speech. With them is the translator's melancholy grandfather (Boris Leskin) serving as driver even though he believes himself blind, & keeps with him a "mentally deranged" "seeing eye bitch," a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.

It's an absurd road picture in which all three characters are supposed to be transformed by their journey. Whenever the assinine dialogue stops, the characters emote well in silence, even to the point of the actors conveying a sense of history & mystery & misery. But when the decidedly unwitty wit of the dialogue is in full play, the writer spoils the whole damn show.

They find an old woman (Laryssa Lauret) who like Jonathan doesn't eat meat & is a "collector" -- of all that remains of the vanished shtetl of Trachimbrod, based on a real village that really was destroyed by the Nazis.

Halfway through the film it stops with the unfunny jokes & becomes somewhat interesting: A sentimental accounting of fascist persecution is recited as a three-hanky weeper devoid of honesty, reeking of pure mawkish artificiality, & no real sense of tragedy. It's probably from good intention that the bad jokes stop when the issue of the Holocaust becomes larger, but as played out here, mawkishness was an even less effective way than humor to frame history's truly low moment of inhumanity & horror.

The grandfather's face is beautiful enough that his story has some impact even if the ending for his "illumination" makes no sense whatsoever. The mawkish attempt at tragic revelation in no way connects to the film's beginning which is piss-pour campiness & would-be comedy which in the end wants us to feel emotion for an alleged reality that turns upon implausible coincidences.

All of which is to say, basically, the film stinks.

Everything is Illuminated After I wrote the above review, I began to feel mean-spirited toward Schreiber who loved the material dearly & tried his best. And having myself lost most relations on the paternal side of my family to the nazis, perhaps I'm too sensitive to appreciate sentimentality & comedy as the proper framework for revisiting the past. Had I been too savage just because I personally found it ridiculous?

So I looked at it again, & rather than ridiculous, the film seemed closer to an abomination. I was not nearly savage enough. So allow me to rip into this lurid little turd a second time with even less restraint, now that I've good reason not to feel sorry for the individuals whose creative efforts were so mispent.

Movies aren't supposed to be histories, but this one's a bewilderingly inept revision of Ukrainian history & even its geography, with respect neither for Jewish experience in the Ukraine nor for Ukranians. It was so superficially researched it gets nothing right.

The film's failure in this regard is apparently the fault of the novel, not necessarily due to Schreiber's ineptitude, except that any fool should know that if you're going to write a comedy about the Holocaust it should not tred quite so gracelessly on history. Schreiber should never have taken the opportunity to repeat fewer mistruths & stereotypes, but seems to have "believed" the novel's most repellant assertions, repeating them unquestioned.

The creepiest lie of the film is it's flat assertion of profound antisemitism among all Ukranians, who are said to have been as bad as the Nazis, Ukranians having been glad to see the Jews eradicated, & Ukranian villages near the shtetl of Trachimbrod doing nothing to assist Jews.

The actual history of the specific region the story pretends to be about is very much the opposite of such bold slander.

Ukranians frequently tried to save Jewish populations, & therefore the Nazis shipped off entire villages of non-Jews alongside the Jews. There were about 200 Jewish survivors histories actual village massacre fictionalized in the film (& book). Many of these survivors, along with survivors of nearby destroyed hamlets of non-Jews, joined the partizans. Jewish & non-Jewish Ukranians fought the Nazis arm & arm.

This reality is just vastly more interesting than the mawkish fable the film deplorably promotes. And not just the shockingly wrongheaded assertion that nearby Ukranians were just like the nazis. The stereotypes of helpless Jews eradicated like big moist-eyed puppies is fatuous & demeaning, when in reality they struggled valiently. It makes the casting of Elijah Wood as the passive & doe-eyed grandson of a survivor even more terrible than was already obvious.

The unjust stereotypes against both Ukranians & Jews makes Everything is Illuminated pretty much unforgiveable on a level much deeper than my ;initial dislike of the film as "only" a first-time director's unutterable artistic failure.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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