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By Jordan Hiller




 


Everything is Illuminated (2005)

Last week in the claustrophobia inducing intellectual oasis known as Penn Books I actually picked up a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's best selling and acclaimed work of quasi-fiction, leafed through the three hundred odd pages, saw that it would set me back over eleven dollars, and decided to go it alone. Now, because I regretfully (but thriftily) did not give Foer a chance to prove himself to me, I sit here with some contempt for the wunderkind writer who, at twenty-five wrote a book that garnered many awards and attention and is now the basis of a major motion picture (as the book jackets love to say) starring Elijah Wood as - that's right - Jonathan Safran Foer. I say this because I'm sure the book is good and Foer has some talent, but as my duty is to review a movie allegedly based on his writing, I have an axe to grind.

To be fair to Foer the screenplay was written by actor turned director Liev Schreiber after only reading a draft of the book before its publishing. Later the film was fleshed out but of course because of the difference in scope, could only be based on a portion of the novel. The most significant drawback in Schreiber's film is that what may have seemed quirky and endearing on the page becomes unreasonable and off-putting on screen. A character or phrase can be interpreted forgivingly in the mind of a reader, but once that sense of imagination is voided by a writer/director's actualization on film, there is no room for reinterpretation.

What is clear from the movie is that the film adaptation is reverent to its foundations. It makes a point of chapter heading each section of the story as if it were a novel and the dialogue flows like the written, as opposed to the spoken, word. As my kosher delightful friend Arye said, who saw the movie with me and is a huge fan of the book, sometimes the value of a work of art is lost in the translation. For Foer's sake, I hope so.

The true disappointment of Everything is Illuminated is that after hearing of the concept - a young man, a family historian of sorts, travels to the Ukraine to dig deeper into his roots and discover how and why his grandfather was saved from certain death during World War II- I expected a new and interesting version of the "Holocaust movie." While the film remains mildly worthwhile simply due to its utter weird, awkward, sometimes beautiful construction, it unfortunately adds nothing to the canon of Holocaust films or even Jewish themed films for that matter. Outside of a few pictures of bearded gentleman in the opening credits, it almost purposely avoids Semitic flavoring which would have been welcome and appropriate. To see an excellent documentary exploring a Jewish family's search for truth regarding the miraculous survival of their parents/grandparents, try and get your hands on Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after The Holocaust - it will make a lifelong impact.

It is difficult to imagine someone under thirty writing a novel with themselves as the protagonist, and not deem that individual officiously pretentious and self-important. Based on the movie alone it would seem Foer views himself (or a layer of himself) as some freakish, anal retentive collector. Foer managed somehow to emerge from such an experience unscathed, however, Schreiber's work does not. Everything is Illuminated is a movie crafted in such a way to convince everyone watching that it is "special" or "important". We are asked to be drawn in by Foer's epic journey and the eternal bond he forms with his groovy caricature of a Ukrainian tour-guide, Alex (singer Eugene Hutz). We are nearly commanded to worship at the alter of mystique and aura surrounding the calculated freeing of six million souls. But Schreiber never takes us on an epic journey. In fact, maybe I'm slipping, but I had a tough time figuring out the intended story toward the end. The sequencing and series of revelations became cluttered and confused. Foer and his lovably strange guide never form a credible relationship on screen and their connection is superficial at best tainting the entire presumption that these two were destined for a meeting. Elijah Wood, who looks about as Jewish as Rob Lowe, turns in a shadow of a performance (apparently on purpose but it makes for a trying theatre experience) and Hutz does well but his character brought to life ranges from preposterous and silly to preposterous and ridiculous. While it is clear that the film intends to feel off-balanced and dreamlike, without an anchor establishing its reason for being, the eccentricities merely float in the air, drifting like a fluffy white cloud formation that occasionally make you smile because it looks like a rabbit or a dog.

The film does occasionally define itself but not long enough to sustain what would be called relevance. The strongest scenes all involve Boris Leskin as Alex's "blind" grandfather who hides an impossibly painful secret. Leskin's face alone conveys wells of emotion and he excels in both comedy and dramatic bite. Until Leskin is allowed to really sink his teeth in during a number of powerful exchanges (approximately halfway through) the film seems to have survived solely on the klezemeresque soundtrack, which casts its spell nicely.

My homework is cut out for me. Read Jonathan Safran Foer's book and redeem him in my mind. For now I can only take the film version and put it behind me, accept the accolades Foer received as deserved, wonder why a better movie couldn't have been made from such acclaimed source material, and remain, metaphorically speaking, in the dark.

Send all comments to movie rav jordan hiller at jtrick1@aol.com

 

------------------------------------------------ reader comments
I haven't seen the film yet but I am planning to, in order to see how it compares to the book. Beware--book spoilers ahead.

I read the book last year. I also caught a glimpse of the back of Jonathan Safran Foer's head as he did a reading from his upcoming 2nd novel (which has since been released) at a bookstore--and I marveled that someone younger than me can be so successful in a creative field and of course, felt incredibly jealous.

I would really like to know why Everything Is Illuminated has received all the praise and affection it has received. As far as I can tell, the book is very much overrated and downright pretentious. I can see why some critics would be mesmerized by the quirky gimmicks JSF used, like deliberately blank pages, and repeating one phrase endlessly over the course of a full page. However, quirky gimmicks does not constitute quality writing. To be fair, I will say that I did feel the sections in Alex's voice were creative and unique and entertaining to read.

There is actually a whole other part of the book that supposedly isn't depicted in the film. It is a flashback to life in the shtetl of Trachimbrod, where the fictional JSF's grandfather was supposedly from. This was the part of the book which proved how little the real Jonathan Safran Foer knows about Jewish life and shtetl life. He depicted life in the shtetl in a completely outlandish, unrealistic and I felt, offensive way. He was preoccupied with describing the sexual behavior of the residents of the shtetl (FYI--the rules of family purity didn't seem to apply), and described daily Jewish life in such a way that it was clear to me that Jonathan Safran Foer must not have much Jewish background to cull his writing from. Something just felt really off. After reading the book, I did a little bit of research about him. Turns out, the real JSF comes from a minimally observant and minimally educated Jewish background. He wanted to interview his grandmother to learn more about her life before and during World War II, but he chickened out because it was too upsetting to her. So he just made up his own story.

My mother read the book as well, and we discussed these points. She agreed with me on a lot of it and we both didn't like the way the shtetl scenes were written. What I really don't understand is why this book has been so embraced by the Jewish community considering it doesn't depict Jews of that era and geography in a flattering way or even a realistic way. It bothers me to think that tons of gentiles are reading this book and believing that Jewish people really behaved that way or still behave that way. It's just not good PR.

I also felt the way you did after seeing the movie--by the end, I really wasn't sure what the original intention was. Even now, as I am trying to recall how his grandfather was actually saved, I'm having trouble. It just didn't make an impression on me and the explanation was fairly convoluted. The scenes of violence at the hands of Nazis were of course, horrible and upsetting to read. That is standard issue Holocaust reading. But I don't think anyone who reads the book will take away any new or different information about the atrocities of the Holocaust.

This may not mean anything to you until you have read the book. But I'm really interested in hearing your reaction to the book and to know if it's in any way similar to mine. I just don't understand why this book received so much attention and praise. I have to say, I felt rather vindicated when I read reviews of JSF's second novel that said his writing is pretentious and he is, too, and that he is falling back on the same gimmicks he used in Everything Is Illuminated, which aren't as endearing the second time around.

Thanks for reading this far, Andrea

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