I had heard of Everything is Illuminated and all the hoopla surrounding Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 debut novel about a young man sifting through his Jewish Eastern European roots, but it didn’t cause me to run out and buy the book. In fact, I purposefully avoided it. As a writer who’s tired of rejection letters, I was afraid that Foer’s novel would “illuminate” my literary insecurities, especially since it was penned by someone who attended elementary school less than two decades ago. It wasn’t until I began researching my own genealogy and the reasons behind my Russian-Jewish last name (despite being raised Catholic by my Lithuanian grandmother) that I decided I finally needed to check it out.
I didn’t want to like it, I’ll admit it. I wanted to find fault with everything in it, but once I began to dig into the narrative, I forgot my petty insecurities almost immediately. I found myself lost in the story of Jonathan Safran Foer (the author uses his real name), a young Jewish man who visits the Ukraine in order to find the woman he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
The book doesn’t solely center on Jonathan, however. It weaves together three separate dialogues beginning with the book’s most intriguing character, Alex. Alex is a self-proclaimed Ukrainian playboy who spends several chapters of the book corresponding with the author in hilariously sketchy English.
Alex is the son of a man who works for a small heritage tour company (Odessa Tours), which track foreigner’s bloodlines in his native land. When Jonathan contacts Odessa for help, Alex is sent on assignment as Jonathan’s translator. Alex’s grandfather (also oddly enough named Alex) a half-blind, narcoleptic with a vague and haunting past serves as their driver. He brings along Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., the disturbed family dog who is really female and also coined the “Officious Seeing Eye Bitch”. And a journey of self discovery begins.
In between Alex’s letters to Jonathan (or ‘Jonfen’ as he calls him) and Alex’s own account of their travails, Foer envisions the past, telling the story of his people on a shtetl called Trachimbrod (a place which was wiped off the map after World War II). In these chapters, Foer’s prose is luxuriant and from time to time ostentatious, but he is able to pull it off by cutting the dashing imagery with Alex’s broken English and hilarious deconstructions of the history of “69” and getting “carnal” with the ladies.
First time director, Liev Schreiber certainly had a job on his hands when he decided to translate the film to the big screen. In order attempt a 120-minute movie or even a three-hour epic, he would have to trim down the plot to make the narrative more linear and compressed. Instead of focusing on all three storytelling components, Schreiber opted to leave out the history of Trachimbrod and concentrate instead on the journey of Alex, his grandfather Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. The result is a kind of road trip movie through the scenic Ukraine (it was actually shot in the Czech Republic) a farce focusing on three men searching for something, and one horny, deranged dog along for the ride.
Foer is played by a very Wood-en Elijah who in the book has more life and humor in him. All big glasses and blank expressions (except when Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. is trying to mount him) Wood’s version of Foer is oddly one-dimensional. In contrast, Alex is alive and crackling, especially as played by Ukrainian musician Eugene Hutz (lead singer of the marvelous gypsy/punk band Gogol Bordello). When the movie began and he appeared all clean-shaven and decked out in a navy blue tracksuit, I couldn’t believe he was the mustachioed leader of that ballsy band. Originally I expected he would have some minor role. After all, most musicians can’t or shouldn’t act (and very much the visa versa), but Eugene Hutz nails Alex. In fact, he’s so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s nominated for some type of independent film award. He’ll be robbed if he isn’t.
Boris Leskin is equally hilarious and tragic as grandfather Alex, a man with a troubled past and guilty conscience. He spends a good deal of the movie asleep in a dirty wife-beater and giant wraparound sunglasses. When he is awake, he’s cussing up a storm and revealing himself as a blatant anti-Semite. Despite Leskin’s supporting role in the film, his character drives the story forward. His performance makes us question certain aspects of the film, like why is grandfather so sad all the time? What is he thinking about when he stares out the windows and cries in his sleep? And most importantly, just what was his role in the war?
Like grandfather’s dilemma, the movie is ambiguous and without a lot of dialogue. Instead we are presented with stunning cinematography and evocative music from the film’s soundtrack, both of which emphasized what I liked so much about the movie. If you need to know exactly what’s happening in your films, however, then this movie might leave you frustrated. At the movie’s end, when a vital secret is disclosed something different and not as interesting as the element revealed by the author in his novel the ambiguousness doesn’t work. In other words, I don’t think you’ll feel all that illuminated.
I would advise both reading the book and seeing the movie. Start with the book, since it contains more Alex as well as the heart-stirring story of Trachimbrod. Then see the film for its striking imagery and unforgettable performances by Eugene Lutz and Boris Leskin. Just be sure to think of the film as a derivative of the book rather than a complete adaptation of it. Soon you too will truly be “enlightened” by the tale this terrific little tome tells.