Everything Is Illuminated (2005) Liev Schreiber’s Impressive Directing Debut, Starring Elijah Wood

Quirky and offbeat in the best sense of these terms, “Everything Is Illuminated,” actor Liev Schreiber’s impressive directorial debut is one of a kind: a road comedy of the absurd that pays a most respectable tribute to the Holocaust!

Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer of the same tile, the movie depicts the quest of a young man named Jonathan (Elijah Wood) to find the woman who had saved his grandfather’s life in a small Ukrainian town that was wiped out off the map in 1942 by the Nazi occupation.

What starts out as a journey to piece together one family’s story under the most comedic and absurd conditions turns into a surprisingly meaningful and existential odyssey, one full of personal and political revelations, culminating in a rather shocking ending, that’s bound to leave viewers utterly moved and perhaps even speechless.

Like other resonant comedies, “Everything Is Illuminated” deals with philosophical issues of the highest order: The importance of memory, both personal and collective, the perilous nature of secrets, the legacy of the Holocaust and the imperative to pass it along from one generation to the next, and the meaning of cross-cultural friendship.

To be sure, the movie is not flawless. The last reel crosses the line between emotionalism and sentimentality and get a tad too schmaltzy. Occasionally, Schreiber shows problems with pacing, and his reliance on folkloristic music may be too insistent, perhaps a result of his insecurities as a first-time filmmaker. Moreover, “Everything Is Illuminated” could benefit from a trimming of at least 10 minutes in the last chapter; just when you thought the movie is over, there’s another closure.

Nonetheless, considering the challenging and tough autobiographical text, and the risk of trivializing such a painful and problematic experience as the Holocaust, Schreiber acquits himself honorably as adapter-writer and director. Schreiber deserves credit for getting the nuances, the ambiguities, the rapidly shifting tone of the dialogue, and the ever-changing plot, which is full of surprises.

Among other achievements, Schreiber may be the first filmmaker to cast Elijah Wood in a role that takes advantage of his unique if slightly bizarre physical attributes, such as his huge eyes.

Originally published as a novel in 2001, the story came to Schreiber’s attention as short fiction in the New Yorker. Coincidentally, Schreiber was writing a script about his late grandfather and the Ukraine, when he read the story in the New Yorker.

Structurally, the tale is divided into five chapters, each with its own title, like “Commencement of a Rigid Search,” or “Overture to Illumination.” Serving more as pauses, the titles don’t add much to the experience.

Looking for a guide and translator in his search, he hires Alex (Eugene Hutz, a member of ‘Gogol Bordello,’ a band billing itself as a Ukrainian Gypsy Punk band) is a youngster with a healthy sense of humor, street smarts, and strong commonsense; in his persona, he comes across as a Ukrainian version of the characters Eddie Murphy played in his youth.

The fist reel is a classic comedy of cultural clash, reflected in the contrast between Jonathan and Alex. Jonathan is a young severe man obsessed with collecting items, which he places carefully in plastic bags before hanging them up on his walls. His apartment looks like a living museum, but it’s meticulously organized. In contrast, Alex is loose, disorganized, and spontaneous.

The second reel unfolds as a road comedy of the absurd that would do Beckett (“Waiting for Godot”) and Sartre’s existentialism proud. It’s a classic narrative of four misfits forced to share the confines of a small car. In the front are Alex and his blind, cantankerous grandfather (Boris Leskin), who’s driving. The back seat is occupied by grandfather’s dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior, and Jonathan, who’s allergic to dogs.

Most of the film unfolds as a study of contrasts. If Alex is a goof ball, Jonathan is more innocent and serious. Dressed in a dark suit, with white shirt and loose black tie, Jonathan looks somber and a bit severe, whereas Alex, sporting colorful sweat suits and sneakers, is at heart a clown. Jonathan is vegetarian; Alex doesn’t understand how anyone can survive without meat.

There’s a hilarious scene, in which the foursome go to a restaurant and there’s nothing for Alex to eat since everything is cooked with meat. Then, in a scene that recalls Jack Nicholson’s classic encounter in “Five Easy Pieces,” though here played with humor rather than anger, Jonathan pulls courage and asks the tough female cook for a single potato. The potato lands on the floor, upon which grandpa slices it in an egalitarian way into four, and gives the same portion to Jonathan, Alex, himself, and the dog.

Along the road, they voice and contest racial and national stereotypes, telling ethnic jokes, talk about sex and women, and discuss their seemingly divergent pastswhat it means to be Ukrainian, and what it means to be Jewish.

At the center of the last reel, which is extremely touching, is the encounter with the woman, Lista (Laryssa Lauret), who’s the only survivor of the War. “Is the War over” she asks, innocently. Here, Jonathan finds his true soul mateand family member. Lista’s small house is a living museum, full of boxes and memorabilia of the War years, just like Jonathan’s apartment.

You may find the last sequences overly sentimental, with a dragging pace and determination to milk every gesture of the participants, but it’s powerful and delivers effectively the film’s central motif.

To his credit, Schreiber didn’t try to adapt the whole book. The impetus for his script was the short story, titled “A Very Rigid Search,” not the published novel. Initially, he intended to incorporate some of the story’s fantasy and humor about the eighteenth century world of Trachimbrod, the shtetl (village) where Jonathan’s grandpa fought for his life and survived. But Schreiber decided that it was too big a project to do a period film that goes back and forth, and instead concentrated on the first story of Jonathan and Alex

As director, Schreiber mention the influence of a film like “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” and one can add to his list the films of Emir Kusturica, which are somewhat between the world of documentary and feature.

Schreiber sees Jonathan, both literally and figuratively, as the eyes of the story, and he grants Elijah Wood many close-ups and reaction shots. It’s a good, different role for Wood, coming off “The Lord of the Ring” trilogy, in which he played Prodo.

But, acting-wise, the movie belongs to the Ukrainian characters. A natural for the camera, Futz is a perfect blend of a trickster clown with routines in his pocket and a more mature guy underneath the exterior bravado.

The dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior plays the fourth character in the movie. There are actually two border collies called Mickey and Mouse, both sisters. The work was divided up between them so that one dog was almost a stunt double. Mickey gives the face, whereas Mouth is the stunt dog.

Schreiber had the smarts to surround himself with pros, like the gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Requiem for a Dream, “Tigerland”). Blessed with incredibly sharp vision, Libatique photograph a milieu that’s a perfect blend of chaos and creativity.
Indeed, when the narrative sags or turns flat, which is seldom, there’s always something interesting to see onscreen.

Libatique’s visual interpretations of the text often transcend the film’s ideas, as in the last reel, when the trio finally reaches the village, or rather what’s left of it. The sight of open fields with rows and rows of sunflowers is as breathtaking and moving as a painting of Van Gogh.

It’s hard to recall a recent movie that changes tones so radically midway, and does it successfully, without jeopardizing the audience’s involvement in the tale or the coherence of the piece. Jonathan Demme managed to do it in “Something Wild,” a film that began as a light romantic comedy before turning into a noir thriller in its second half. I mention Demme, because Schreiber credits this generous director for offering him useful advice on the set of “The Manchurian Candidate,” in which Schreiber played a crucial role.

The movie is about people’s need to be connected. We follow two youngsters from vastly different cultures that at first have nothing in common. Gradually, however, they come to realize that there’s deep connection between them that’s emotionally and spiritually binding.

Aptly titled, “Everything is Illuminated,” is a highly original movie about the search for roots and the search for meaning, based on the notion that one cannot ignore, disregard, or escape the burden of history and the past, as painful as they are.