Published at: Feb. 4, 2007, 3:56 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Liev Schreiber may have adapted his debut film, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, but it’s an unquestionable original, a frothy delight with a dark side, a comedy with a devastating right hook. It’s also a strong showcase for Elijah Wood, who finally has his first great post-LORD OF THE RINGS role. The way he handles the film’s dizzying shifts in tone is smart, adult work. It’s obvious that Schreiber is an actor first, director second, because it really is a film that succeeds based on the moments between people, the friction between all these wonderful discoveries he’s made.
I haven’t read the novel. I’m sure I will now, based on my reaction to the film, but my reaction has nothing to do with the book. All I can judge here is the work by Schreiber. His love for the source material seems evident. This movie is in love with words. Eugene Hutz is the narrator of the film, a Ukranian named Alex who doesn’t really speak English. It’s more like he wrestles with it, attacks it, sometimes pinning it but more often just missing. Eugene Hutz is one of those discoveries I mentioned. He’s a musician, not an actor, the front man for a Ukranian Gypsy Punk band called Gogol Bordello. He’s a natural, gifted performer, and his work as Alex is impressive. Alex is eternally optimistic, in love with the small doses of Western culture he’s gotten, a charismatic hipster doofus.
Boris Leskin’s made movies before, but I’d still call him a new face. Well... sort of. “New” isn’t exactly how you’d describe Grandfather, the oldest member of Alex’s family. He decided to go blind several years ago, and now the entire family has to simply accept this fact and treat him as if he’s blind. They even went so far as to buy him a “seeing-eye bitch” named Sammy Davis Junior Junior, a dog that suffers from dementia. If push comes to shove, Grandfather’s still perfectly capable of getting behind the wheel of a car, as long as everyone agrees to still call him blind. Leskin’s got a seasoned snarl that makes him a particularly funny curmudgeon.
What brings the four main characters together is a photograph. Even though the film is narrated by Alex, it begins with Jonathan Safran Foer (played by Wood), a precise little exclamation point of a guy. He describes himself as a collector, but he’s not some pop culture junkie collecting movies or toys or records. Instead, he tries to collect his life, evidence of all the ways he connects to the world around him. He maintains a wall, on which he keeps pictures of his whole family along with all of the bags that hold his collection. In one brief flashback, it’s established that the reason for Jonathan’s obsession is because when his grandfather died, Jonathan only had one thing to remember him by. He seems terrified of that happening again. Elijah plays most of the first half-hour of the film without saying a word, and Schreiber made the choice to hide Elijah behind a pair of glasses that magnify those already-gigantic eyes. It makes thematic sense, with Jonathan willingly playing the role of observer instead of participant.
When his grandmother dies, she gives him one more piece of his grandfather’s life, a photo taken in the Ukraine before the start of WWII. In the picture, his grandfather looks just like Jonathan does now. It shocks Jonathan out of his comfortable bubble into action. He flies to the Ukraine and hires a professional Jewish tourism service to help him find the town where the picture was taken. Or at least, he thinks he hires a professional service. He actually hires Alex and Grandfather and Sammy Davis Junior Junior and a very tiny car, and the “very rigid search” that ensues is often hilarious, but also powerfully moving. This is great character comedy, and there’s genuine chemistry between Wood, Leskin, and Hutz. The Ukraine that Schreiber captures in this film is obviously real, shot on location, but there’s something dreamlike about it as well.
Credit a lot of that to Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer. I have to say... I’m a geek for cinematographers the way some people are for rock stars, and Libatique is one of the guys I consider a superstar right now, consistently great. The film is vivid, drenched in bright primary colors, and there are imaginative, even painterly compositions throughout. It was a really strong choice by Schreiber to use Libatique, and it pays off because the film is sumptuous.
One of the most important merits of the film is the way Schreiber has shaped the story he’s telling. He’s focused it very specifically, dropping an entire fantasy storyline set in the 18th century, so that at the heart of the film, there is a revelation, an important puzzle piece dropped into place at a very specific moment. But this isn’t THE SIXTH SENSE or THE USUAL SUSPECTS, where the twist is the reason the film exists. Instead, this moment, their final destination in the very rigid search, deepens the entire film, suddenly enriching our understanding of not only these characters but also of life and the larger world around us. Everything is indeed illuminated, and the film finds light in the darkest places. It’s a film that believes in the healing power of memory passed from one generation to the next. In a way, Schreiber’s the collector here, gathering this book and that cast and these locations, and the cumulative result is something substantial. This isn’t some actor’s vanity project. Schreiber is the real deal, a born storyteller. He’s got a fetish for authenticity. Lots of people would have cast familiar faces in every role, or they would have packed the soundtrack with current hits. Schreiber found unknowns who he felt really inhabited the roles. His soundtrack is all Ukranian, of the region. It helps create the feeling that you’re immersed in this world right there alongside “Jonfan” and Alex and Grandfather. You’ll definitely want to collect this one when it opens September 16th in New York and Los Angeles before Warner Independent rolls it out across the country. It’s a keeper.
So, thanks to an early-afternoon screening yesterday, I’ve got two more films to write about, not one, and it’s exciting to see the year really kick into high gear. Harry saw yesterday’s film with me, so he may write about it before I do. I’ll get there in the next couple of days, though, along with more DVD SHELF for you. Lots to do, so I’d better get going. Until then...