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Everything Is Illuminated is a film about discovering your roots and finding out who you are. Darkly funny, this picture, based on the best-selling novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, ironically has an identity crisis of its own.

The Indie-Empire Strikes Back

Wood's big eyes are accentuated, making his wondrous looks much more convincing
Wood’s big eyes are accentuated, making his wondrous looks much more convincing

The Quirky American Indie is back yet again! This term (coined by Movie Habit’s own Marty Mapes) is for all of those new independent films coming out which boast heavy style, but fall short of giving us real substance.

Even though this genre has been blossoming over the past few years, the quality of the pictures being made are highly debatable. Why studios are so shamelessly desperate to find the next Zach Braff is a wonder to me, but it seems the harder they try, the worse the picture is. Despite this film being in the “Q.A.I.” category, I can thankfully say Everything is Illuminated stands above all of the Junebugs, Thumbsuckers, and Chumscrubbers.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a dapper-dressed young Jewish man who sports giant coke-bottle glasses, is a collector. Armed with a pouch of plastic baggies, any artifact that has family significance is hung on his mural wall like a trophy. Everything is sacred; even when his grandmother passes away, her dentures are hung proudly next to other various pieces of memorabilia. Before she died, she had left Jonathan a picture of the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II. Desperate to find the woman, he pays an old man and his grandson to navigate him through this Ukrainian journey.

Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather (Boris Leskin) are the two hired to be Jonathan’s traveling companions. Alex is a hip-hop dancing playa’ who speaks English like he was reading out of a thesaurus, while his grandfather thinks he is blind, but is actually far from it. Also along for the journey is their “seeing eye-bitch” dog named Sammy David Jr. Jr.

The three (four — if you count the seeing eye bitch) drive across the country, meeting many interesting people and seeing many interesting things. As the trip progresses, our characters start developing and become more significant to us; but not quite enough for the “twist” at the end to emotionally matter.

Limited Illumination

The most illuminated thing about the film is the casting. The actors fit their parts wonderfully; especially Wood, whose popular big eyes are appropriately accentuated, making his wondrous looks much more convincing.

Written for the screen and directed by actor Liev Schreiber, one can see that Everything is Illuminated was a personal project for the new filmmaker. As an actor, he is probably best known for his roles in Sphere and the Scream trilogy. I’m rather impressed with his first go at directing; his style is distinct and his eye for stunning cinematography is exceptional.

Then again, the writing has a sort of disconnected feeling to it; almost as if Schreiber couldn’t decide if he wanted to drive the film with the same feel as the book. The first half of the film is jolly laugh-out-loud comedy, while the last half is strictly drama. With the drastic change in mood, some scenes become awkward. I haven’t read the novel, but I can say that the comedy probably wasn’t projected on screen as well as it was in the book.

And therein lies the quirkiness. The lack of solid substance is hidden behind the beautiful images and catchy comedy.