Elijah Wood is working hard to shake off the legacy of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the past two years we have seen him play a proto-football hooligan in Green Street, co-star in Frank Miller’s hyper-violent Sin City and stalk Kate Winslet in Charlie Kaufman’s wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with not a hairy toe between them. His tendency to choose unexpected roles continues with Everything Is Illuminated, in which he plays Jonathan Safran Foer as a hyperopic collector of memorabilia.
Based on Safran Foer’s short story A Very Rigid Search rather than his eponymous novel, Everything Is Illuminated is funny and touching. It is a film about memory, identity, love and friendship. Wood’s Safran Foer travels to Ukraine to discover the secrets contained in a photograph bequeathed by his grandmother. In it his grandfather stands in a field with a woman, both are dressed in peasant costume. Who is she and what was her role in his grandfather’s escape from the Nazi occupation?
Safran Foer uses the services of a shambolic local tour company run by the cynical Perchov family. Son Alex (Eugene Hutz), a Ukrainian Chavski who wears so much bling he looks like an ad for Elizabeth Duke, and his anti-Semitic grandfather (Boris Leskin) act as guides, while their ferocious “seeing eye bitch” Sammy Davis Junior Junior comes along for the ride. Despite the clashes in culture – Wood’s rigidity nicely contrasts the pseudo-American swagger of Alex – friendship and a respect of sorts develop on the journey deep into the Ukrainian countryside back in time to terrible memories,
Better known as an accomplished actor, Liev Schreiber pursued Safran Foer for rights to develop his short story into his first feature as writer/director. It was a risk for the author to leave his acclaimed work in such untried hands, but it has paid off. Schreiber has created a little gem, funny, moving and thought-provoking.
Though Wood’s name is above the title, Hutz and Leskin are the stars. It is Hutz’s first foray into acting – his day job is lead singer with the band Gogol Bordello. Judging by this it will not be his last. While his Chavski style and pimp stroll are played for laughs, his indestructible optimism about a post-Soviet society subsumed by the badges of American culture from Mickey D to hip hop is poignant. Leskin’s Grandfather is more complex. Curmudgeonly from the outset, Leskin softens him into a man haunted by unnamed guilt, but for whom the audience feel compassion despite the terrible revelations that guilt may hide.
Everything Is Illuminated is one of those laugh out loud films that is both uplifting and illuminating. It comes at you sideways, reminding you that it is possible to transcend the great rifts in culture and time that lie between us. Despite dealing with a dark and difficult subject, Schreiber has avoided sentiment and too much darkness to produce a movie that moves all the more because of his lightness of touch.