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Everything is Illuminated (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated


Starring Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret, Tereza Veselková, Oleksandr Choroshko , Gil Kazimirov, Zuzana Hodková, Micki, Mouse, Jana Hrabětová, Štěpán Šamudovský, Ljubomir Dezera, Robert Chytil, Jaroslava Sochová, Ludmila Kartouská, Lukáš Král, Bert Schneider, Věra Šindelářová, Eliáš Bauer, Jurij Kokyrc, Sergej Kapitan, Jaroslav Jurichkanc, Igor Savivskij, Jan Filipenský, and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Screenplay by Liev Schreiber.

Directed by Liev Schreiber.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures. 104 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Elijah Wood has certainly gone out of his way not to become typecast.  After all, he has been doing terrific work in the movies since he was a child actor and played bad seed Macauley Culkin’s virtuous friend in The Good Son.  However, playing the role of Frodo Baggins in the phenomenally successful film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the type of thing that can ruin an actor’s career more easily than hype it, because it is such an iconic character that some viewers will never be able to see the actor in any other way.

Probably aware of this, Wood has picked some oddball but fascinating roles as his follow-ups.  He played a desperately and amorally lovesick loser in the brilliantly surreal Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  He joined the pulp comic strip bravado of Sin City. 

Now, he plays his most intriguing, difficult characters yet.  Difficult because he is rather inscrutable and almost completely unable to relate to any human being, all the while cataloging his life by putting inanimate objects in baggies and pinning them to the wall.  When asked why he does this odd thing, he merely shrugs and admits that he is always afraid that he will forget the moments of his life.  However, he does not realize by collecting things so obsessively, he is allowing life to pass him by while he obsesses about its minutiae.

Everything Is Illuminated, based on the autobiographical novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and written and directed by actor Liev Schrieber (The Manchurian Candidate, Kate and Leopold) is fascinating just because everyone in it learns giant lessons and secrets, but Jonathan is still only able to change in little ways because of his journey.  Sometimes you can go someplace, learn many things and still continue to head down the same path you originally followed.  This is just one of Everything is Illuminated‘s fascinating revelations.

This trip is for an understanding of family history.  On her deathbed, Jonathan’s grandmother give him a photograph of his late grandfather in his twenties with a young woman named Augustina.  Jonathan knows little about her except that she helped his grandfather escape the small Ukranian town of Trachimbrod right before the Nazis arrived.

Jonathan decides to fly to the Ukraine to find the town, which is not on any current map he can find.  He hopes that if he finds the town he may be able to learn the story of Augustina and his Grandfather.  However, he is lost in an area where he does not speak the language and despite the fact that he is a vegetarian there is nothing available but meat.

This leads him to the Perchov family.  They are three generations of a family who run a service for expatriate Jews in which they guide them around the Ukraine in search of information on last ancestors.  This is not really done for altruistic purposes – it is early acknowledged by the second generation Perchov that they just show the rich visitors around, there is never any information to be found.  The business was founded years ago by the Grandfather, which seems rather odd because now he is angry, cynical and vaguely anti-Semitic.  Grandfather claims that his misery has made him blind and the family humors him even though he can obviously see, even going so far as to go to the pound and buy him a deranged dog which the family calls Sammy Davis Junior Junior (yes, there are two juniors) to be his “seeing eye bitch.”

Grandfather will drive the expedition, but the actual guide is Alex (a very strong performance by Eugene Hutz, an acting novice who is the leader of gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello).  Alex is a young Ukrainian who fancies himself a hip-hop dancer, walks around in ghetto wear and Kangol hats.  Alex takes charge, is responsible for finding the lost town and translating and keeping the peace between Jonathan and Grandfather, who will not speak English and can’t understand this odd Jew who will not eat meat and does not like dogs.

As the trip continues, you come to realize that the Grandfather knows more about the people in the photograph and Trachimbrod than he is willing to let on.  This leads to some illuminations of his life that make his Grandson realize that everything he had assumed about the man were false.  However, these revelations are not the obvious ones that the audience brought up on Hollywood filmmaking might assume, but much more subtle, disturbing and perplexing ones.

The trip into the past turns out to be dramatic, funny, quirky and harrowing.  I will not tell you if he finds out who the woman was – that is one of the little treasures of this charming film.  However, through the voyage, everyone is able to use the past to rethink their present.  It is mostly in subtle, quiet ways, but some are changed dramatically.  Even Sammy Davis Junior Junior seems to benefit from the trek.  (9/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: September 2, 2005.


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