Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
American Jews in the years after World War II have had a hard time finding their place in the world. Scattered to the four winds, reconnecting to the past has been a theme in Jewish life since the Holocaust. Many people who had been able to leave their native countries for asylum in America and other places had to begin anew with families in newfound foreign countries. There’s a certain lack of connection to the past in generations since felt by many people descended from those fleeing one of history’s darkest hours.
In the years since, many of those descendants have gone back to the European countries from which their parents and grandparents have come from in order to try and reconnect with life before the unpleasantness. And following in these foot steps of the past is Jonathan (Elijah Wood). A picture of his grandfather and the woman who saved him from the Nazis in the Ukraine is the latest thing he’s collected; he has a massive collection of artifacts from his family. But the picture fascinates him and he journeys to the Ukraine to find the woman.
And so begins Everything is Illuminated, based off the best selling book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Upon Jonathan’s arrival into the Ukraine he is met by a translator named Alex (Eugene Hutz) to escort him on his journey as well as Alex’s grandfather (Boris Leskin) and his Seeing Eye dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior. And what begins as a light-hearted subtle comedy slowly develops into a gut-turning human drama.
The comedy aspect of Everything is Illuminated is subtle and dry, yet wonderfully entertaining. The film relies on several gags, including Jonathan’s personality quirks, to drive the dry comedy aspect. While several don’t work early on, credit Liev Schreiber for being able to realize this and not pound upon the same unfunny joke repeatedly. The ones that work are used, the ones that don’t are dropped relatively quickly; some of the comedy bits don’t work but aren’t continually used. What also helps is the focused narrative, provided with commentary by Alex.
Alex’s narration allows the film to focus and maintain a steady pace and timing. The commentary isn’t needed at certain points and isn’t used for those. Schreiber has done a masterful of not overusing Alex’s comments, as they provide a refresher from more of the intense moments of the film. But the key to the film is the gradual insertion of the dramatic aspects.
Schreiber uses a slow burn aspect to his drama, as he slowly builds it up during the road trip. What starts out as a serious road trip scattered with comedy turns into a character building venture. It’s well-designed too; Schreiber builds to a gut-wrenching, well-designed final twenty minutes that culminate with characters who have developed, changed and been affected by the events of their trek.