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.