Everything is Illuminated (2005) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret
Director: Liev Schreiber
Screenplay: Liev Schreiber (based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer)

Review published February 4, 2006

Everything is Illuminated is based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which the main character, named after the author, travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman that helped his recently-departed grandfather, a Russian Jew, survive World War II and the anti-Semitic elements that were in play there.  Actor Liev Schreiber writes the screenplay as well as directs, both for the first time, to smashing results in both departments.  It's funny, heartbreaking, emotional and intelligent, entertaining and inspiring thought in almost equal measure.   It's also one of the best movies of 2005.

Elijah Wood (Sin City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) stars as the aforementioned Jonathan, out on a road trip with his Russian tour guides traveling across the countryside in search for a woman he doesn't really know he'll find in a place he doesn't actually know exists.  Along for the ride is a young Russian hip-hop aficionado named Alex Jr. (Hutz), Alex's cantankerous grandfather, and their "seeing-eye bitch", a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. 

Although it plays mostly as a comedy for much of the running length, dramatic elements do surface from time to time, until the last half hour is about as serious as can be.  Schreiber masterfully takes us from one extreme to the other without any turbulence, allowing us to care about these rather quirky characters, and compel us with a very emotional tale of survival amidst daunting circumstances.  Although there are whole scenes constructed to go for obvious laughs, they do add to the character development in not-so-ordinary ways, fleshing out the roles and allowing us to get to know them in an entertaining and "illuminating" manner.

Despite the artifice of some of the narrative elements, the strength in the thematic material eventually fills in the gaps with a real humanity, and it is obvious that Schreiber put much of himself and his beliefs into the film, including his own peculiar outlook and humor. The structure of the film is richly developed, with oodles of inspiration and erudite subject matter, and sumptuous cinematography to blend with the mood of each scene. 

In many ways, the feel of Everything is Illuminated is reminiscent of Tim Burrton's (arguably) best film, Big Fish, as both films have a quirky central character on a search for familiar meaning, blending humor and pathos for a richly textured narrative experience.  Both films are full of a certain rustic charm that is accentuated with subtle touches that add flavor, while also blending a unique sound and vision to punctuate the most poignant moments.  Schreiber's first film seems so effortless, which is the result of undertaking a project that is truly inspired and personal.  Highly recommended for all that enjoy offbeat films fueled by intelligent dialogue and thoughtful reflections.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo