Everything Is Illuminated
When his Lord of the Rings honeymoon ran its billion-dollar course, Elijah Wood seemed to be at a career crossroads. Luckily for him, he seems to have stumbled upon the perfect transition film in Liev Schreiber's Everything Is Illuminated. Let's hope it doesn't fly completely under the radar.
Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is the story of the author's journey to track down the woman who saved his grandfather during the Nazi invasion. Foer (Wood) winds up finding a lot more than he'd bargained for, including his own quirky threshold being tested. Upon arriving in Ukraine, he is met by his host family, a grandson-grandfather duo comprised of American-culture junkie Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his self-proclaimed ''blind'' grandfather (Boris Leskin). Things immediately take a turn for the funny when Jonathan, himself eccentric and phobic, learns that Alex will be his translator and Alex's grandfather his driver. And he's less than thrilled to learn that the blind chauffeur's ''seeing-eye bitch,'' Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., will be accompanying them; Foer has a crippling fear of dogs. But in one of the film's ongoing theme, Jonathan learns to adapt. When the trio finally finds what they've been searching for, it leads to closure for all, but mostly for Alex's grandfather. For the first time in ages, he is no longer blind, which for him brings both rewards and consequences.
Everything Is Illuminated has a top-notch ensemble cast, with Wood turning in the film's third-best performance. He doesn't exactly get to spread his post-Frodo wings, but his minimalist performance is subtle and unobtrusive in a way that adds to Foer's mystique and ultimate growth. It also allows Hutz and Leskin to shine--and boy, do they ever. In his acting debut, Hutz absolutely steals the movie. He is, at times hilarious, providing the necessary comic relief as an appropriate symbol of what America represents to its faceless admirers abroad. Then, at other times, Hutz is devastating and pensive, mostly when he removes his hat and exposes his face, revealing a vulnerability that contrasts his flamboyant personality. Perhaps it's not such a departure for Hutz, who in his own life is an American transplant and front man of underground punk band Gogol Bordello. Then there's Leskin, who only has a few American films to his credit, but a wide and varied career in European cinema. Although his appearances are brief, he shines through, as his character's arc involves the full emotional spectrum, ending with illumination.
Long live Liev Schreiber! At least that's the praise each of these three fortunate actors should be singing, in exchange for Schreiber giving them such rich and career-boosting parts. But Illuminated is really Schreiber's baby, his own labor of love. Having adapting Foer's novel himself, its themes truly hit home for the actor-turned-director, whose own late grandfather survived the Holocaust. But the film's journey to the big screen hasn't been easy. It's taken about four years to get the film made and finally released, but as Schreiber told Premiere magazine, ''I wanted to make a film like the films I love.'' Most first-time directors need some sort of mentor or babysitter on-set to guide them through, but since Schreiber is such an esteemed veteran of countless films (The Manchurian Candidate and HBO's RKO 281 as some of his best) that it looks like it comes naturally to him. With a mixture of exotic music and offbeat humor, he successfully brings a story that might have been better suited for television. If Schreiber can find the time between his many current acting gigs, including his highly successful run of Glengarry Glen Rosson Broadway, he may have a new chair to comfortably sit in--the director's chair.
While neither something we haven't seen before nor flawless, Everything Is Illuminated is still a refreshingly quaint, if a tad brisk, blend of comedy and poignancy that brings new talent to light.