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EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (director/writer: Liev Schreiber; screenwriter: from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer; cinematographer: Matthew Libatique; editors: Craig McKay/Andrew Marcus; music: Paul Cantelon; cast: Elijah Wood (Jonathan Safran Foer), Eugene Hutz (Alex), Boris Leskin (Grandfather), Laryssa Lauret (Lista); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Marc Turtletaub/Peter Saraf; Warner Independent Pictures; 2005)
“Never comes up big with anything more than a reminder that the Holocaust really did happen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel in the hands of first-time writer-director Liev Schreiber tells in a straightforward but awkward manner the true story of Foer’s visit to a remote Ukraine shtetl to find the Slavic woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Holocaust in 1942. It starts out as a quirky adventure and then turns mawkishly poignant, as it evokes the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s the kind of pic where there’s a deranged dog feared by the dog-hating protagonist in the beginning, who by the conclusion befriends the suddenly docile dog. One can’t say its heart wasn’t in the right place, but the film never recovers from its dissonant overall feel and lack of any weight.

Jonathan (Elijah Wood) is a passive, serious, nerdy looking Jewish-American young man attired in a drab dark suit, who wears bookish glasses and is an avid collector of memorabilia. After the deaths of his beloved grandmother and grandfather he goes to Odessa, on his way to the village of Trachimbrod, and connects with the low-level tour guides he hired for a fat fee who will take him there even though they don’t like rich American Jews but are in the business of taking “rich Jewish people” around the region to locate relatives from the past. The ear stud wearing Alex (Eugene Hutz) is around the same age as Jonathan but of an opposite personality, who digs hip-hop, loves to show-off his break dancing, act loud, and is a worshiper of Michael Jackson because of his dancing. Alex will act as translator even though his English is fractured. Alex’s elderly, cranky, eccentric, anti-Semitic spouting, guilt-ridden grandfather (Boris Leskin) wants people to think he’s blind even though he isn’t, and to go along with his act he is given by the family a pooch recovered from the shelter named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. that is made to appear like a guide dog. The grandfather is the tour driver. The dog will get much film time in reaction shots whenever there’s a lapse in storytelling (which is quite often) and the pooch will be shamelessly shilled for laughs.

The poignancy part begins just as the screwball comedy has run its course when the trio, who slowly bond after many culture clashes, finally reach a hidden field filled with war reminders from World War II and an old woman (Laryssa Lauret) is found living there and takes them to the river spot, once called Trachimbrod, that has been wiped off the map because the Nazis in 1942 massacred over a thousand Jews who lived there. The loner woman is still not over the Holocaust, and is not drawn into the modern age (never has ridden in a car). It turns out she knew Jonathan’s grandfather as she recognizes him from the photograph Alex shows her, and that brings back the horrible memories from the past and it’s hanky time for the viewer. Lauret provides the film with its truest Holocaust moment, and is very touching in her role. But the film never comes up big with anything more than a reminder that the Holocaust really did happen, as evidently the filmmaker wanted to make it as pleasing as possible without going too deep into all the misery–something I’m led to believe, without having read the book, the author had no difficulty plunging into.

REVIEWED ON 10/20/2005 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”