Review (text version)
This is a public challenge to Liev Schreiber… listen mate, what’s with you? The acting thing, well, yeah, if you must, but you’ve proven where your real talent lies. You made one of the most delightful little mind bender, heart filling and chuckle inducing road movies I’ve ever seen. Naomi, please give the big lug a shove and get him back where he belongs – directing movies as good as this.
Please, be observant of most premium cinematic facility and explore your inner Jew – “Everything is Illuminated”
First time novelist Jonathan Safran Foer won the 2002 “Guardian first book award” with this thematically complex and stylistically multi-headed beast of a book.
It explores two time periods in parallel, is narrated by two different people, uses letters, diary entries, long extracts from other books, which are fictional, about a Jewish shtetl called Trochenbrod / Trechenbrod that doesn’t exist but once did.
There’s an old man wanting to forget, an old woman wanting to remember, a young American wanting to understand his Ukrainian heritage and a young Ukrainian wanting to be more American than the American.
Add an old car, a blind driver and a seeing eye dog called Sammy Davis Jr Jr and you have a small part of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED.
The book is a real head trip but a very entertaining one, and I can see why the author was praised by many and set upon by others for just being too darn clever and a Mr smarty pants.
The shifting styles, the collage like approach to the telling of the tale, debatable creativity with typography and the choice to fictionalize elements of real history made for tears before bedtime for some cultural historians and print based purists.
With the novel not even published, enter actor, Liev Schreiber, yes, that guy from, “Salt”, “Definace”, instalment 127 “X-Men wolfy-something-or-other” and the testosterone soaked Showtime series “Ray Donovan”… though this is 2002 before any of that.
Schreiber had been working on a screenplay, sifting through the history of his own Grandfather, a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant to America, when he’s alerted to an extract from an upcoming novel in THE NEW YORKER. It’s about some guy sifting through the history of his own Grandfather and who woulda ever guessed it – a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant to America.
The sensible Mr Schreiber overturns his own effort – perhaps recognising a few too many similarities – and opts for having a crack at adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece instead. Collaborate, don’t compete. Smart move.
Hanging up his over sized rubber feet and ears from Middle Earth, Elija Wood plays the fictionalised version of Jonathan. A mild mannered American Jewish lad and a collector of memorabilia from multiple generations and multiple strands of his own family. He’s a kind of closet historian frocked up looking ready to attend a funeral at any opportunity.
That opportunity comes when his grandmother dies, and please no e-mails about spoilers that happens very, very, early in the film, he decides to go on a pilgrimage to find the village where his grandfather lived in Ukraine prior to World War II.
His guiding touchstone is a brooch – an insect encased in amber – fixed forever in time and just the start of a dozen cross referencing metaphors about history, time, connection to place and purpose and identity across generations and oceans.
The brooch belonged to a woman called Augustine who supposedly assisted his grandfather long ago and appears in a photograph with Jonathan’s grandfather who bears a slightly more than passing resemblance to Elijah Wood.
The fun, and trust me this is a funny movie, yeah I know a funny movie about Holocaust survivors…. The fun begins with a raucous brass band arrival in a strange new world, and the overly enthusiastic services by the second hero of the story, Alex – a linguistically challenged interpreter making straight answers to any questions almost impossible.
Jonathan is a fish out of water gasping for air and anything he can clutch onto that feels familiar and calm – like that’s gonna happen!
Put these two in a car along with Alex’s blind Grandfather (who insists on driving) and an anti social seeing-eye dog called Sammy Davis Jr Jr, and you have the makings of a thigh slappin, bi-ingual, road movie comedy of errors.
Off screen it seems Alex has thumbed a thesaurus to extinction finding words to improve his English. His mangled Rush-lish makes for some brilliant “getting to know you” exchanges with Jonathan.
High praise to Eugene Hutz as Alex. He was not really an actor, Schreiber knew of him more for his music as front man of the Gypsy Punk group Gogol Bordello… Honest, I’m not making this up… a band that looks like they were created to play drunken University gigs and give Eurovision a bit of a shake up. What a bunch of wacky, crazy, take-home-to-meet-mother kinda lovable guys and gals!
Discussing the music that might be used in the film Schreiber suddenly saw Hutz in another light – how ‘bout giving the acting thing a go? Hutz is surprisingly good. What might have deteriorated into totally crass slapstick is just held back enough to remain truthful and honest while being incredibly funny.
Grandfather is also a delight. In his 80s at the time the film was shot, Russian actor Boris Leskin had worked for many decades in Soviet films and later in the USA. His snappy retorts and stubbornness reveal a lovely comic sense.
Tricky for Schriber was directing not just Hutz who came to the film lacking acting experience, but most of the other minor players as well. He was after people who were the characters they played rather than actors pretending to be the characters… that “real dirt under the fingernails” type thing. As a result he was having to work through an interpreter for not just for the Russian but also the Ukrainian dialects spoken by various characters.
Schriber was full of praise for Elijah Wood through the process, “He’s very, very proficient and he’s very, very professional. That was a bonus because I had to spend so much time with the other actors, I needed someone who could figure out what’s going on and find his place.”
And Wood’s performance really is the glue that holds this film together. He is good!
The first time I saw it I felt he was overwhelmed by the events and larger than life characters around him but on a second viewing I really appreciated his introverted stillness. It’s a very a-typical American Character he’s playing, a very grounded one, stoic at times, surrounded by this cacophony of odd ball people and situations. I think he brings a great delicacy, depth and subtly to the role. Watch him, watch him closely as he resists and then comes to terms with the circus around him.
The road movie progresses with a number of wrong turns and confused directions, literally, but as Jonathan gets closer to his goal, the tone noticeably shifts from an almost documentary feeling as the travelers pass through the countryside, to a stylised magic realism. In the middle of a vast field of sunflowers, the travelers meet an old woman living alone in a house – a place where time seems almost to stand still.
It’s as if the characters stop fighting the odd events and energies of this strange land and they fall into a submission, attuning themselves to what’s in front of them. This is certainly the case for Alex who perhaps has the most to learn on this very rigid search.
By the time the many truths about the forgotten village of Trochenbrod / Trechenbrod and its inhabitants are uncovered, a prevailing calm settles where once existed so much chaos.
What’s the message here? Perhaps the answers to questions can only be heard when people are quiet enough and still enough to listen for them.
I think maybe the first fifteen minutes or so where the film sets up two combative styles to establish the world of Alex and the world of Jonathan before they even meet. I got the point of the extreme contrast but only in hindsight. At the time, first viewing, as it was happening, it felt indecisive, exploring its own boundaries through the first act. If I was stopping to think about why the film was the way it was, at the time, then was it working?
- Surprise… Hey, that’s always good – that unknowing of what’s next kinda surprise. I had absolutely no idea where the plot, where the characters were going. I was totally in he hands of the story teller and I was loving the ride.
- The outrageous dialogue exchanges between Elija Wood and Eugene Hutz – hilarious!
- The unraveling of the fate of the lost village of Trochenbrod / Trechenbrod – revealed bit by bit – resonates with a deep, sincere and sadness but never becomes maudlin. There is strength and calm in knowing truth no matter how tragic the circumstances.
So why did this film fall between the cracks?
My guess is the difficulty to “sell” a film to an American audience when half of it is in a foreign language and who wants to see a funny film about the Holocaust?
Even with a hero from Middle Earth in a lead role, and generally positive reviews, the gross was under $4million world wide! For this beautifully crafted, constantly surprising and intelligent suitcase of fun. Ridiculous!
Review © 2015 Greg Punch
Warner Independent Pictures © 2005
Big Beach Productions
Reference DVD copy of film used for this review:
Warner Bros Entertainment (Australia) © 2005
– Liev Schreiber pic #1
Gage Skidmore (photographer)
Behind the scenes photos:
– Liev Schreiber with Jonathan Safran Foer
– Elija Wood with Jonathan Safran Foer
– Boris Leskin (in car with camera crew foreground)
– Liev Schreiber directing on set of Everything is Illuminated (x3 pics)
Neil Davidson (photographer) – 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“As I Figure”
“Rollin at 5”
“Danse Macabre – Big Hit 1”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Gogol Bordello official web site
“Never Want to Be Young Again” (song exceprt performed live)
Various GB shows compiled, shot and edited by Dimon
Contributing shots by Julianne Eggold and Margarite Jimeno
The “further information” links are correct at the time of publication. Newtown Flicks can not be responsible for dead links or content moved or deleted from other sites.
Penguin Australia / UK soft cover “popular penguins” edition
US hard cover edition
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