Everything is Illuminated
Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood) is a compulsive collector. Over the years, he has witnessed many of his relatives pass away. In their stead, he keeps a collection of their personal effects--dentures, wish bones from a family dinner, plane tickets, recordings, even a condom--in a series of little Ziploc bags. Now, with the death of his grandmother, he yearns to know more about his family. An old photograph of a woman, who supposedly played a role in saving his grandfather's life from the hands of Nazi soldiers, especially heightens his curiosity.
So Jonathan books a trip to his Ukrainian homeland, and contracts the services of a supposedly professional guide company that specializes in helping Jews research their dead ancestors. Only minutes after his arrival, he detects he may have been deceived.
His first clue is his translator Alex (Eugene Hutz), a guy with broken English who still lives in the disco era. The next is the barely roadworthy car, driven by Alex's sight-impaired grandfather (Boris Leskin), in which he is expected to share the backseat with a cranky dog named Sammy Davis Junior Junior. (Yes, that's two "juniors.")
Huddled together in the tiny vehicle (for what seems like days), the lack of communication leaves Jonathan listening to the two Ukrainians exchanging what often sounds like heated remarks. The only word he does understand, which is most often spoken by the grandfather, is "Jew." Sensing the motivation behind the family run micro-tour business is the lucrative possibilities of a rich Jewish American clientele, the young foreigner also begins to suspect the old man harbors anti-Semitic feelings--a conclusion even Alex is beginning to consider. As the odd trio travels through the countryside, each becomes more able to see things they couldn't see before.
A collage of humorous and poignant moments, this film takes the fictional work (by the same name) of real life author Jonathan Foer, and extracts its core concepts to form the plot of this unusual road trip movie. The script uses the tragedies associated with the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine to illustrate how knowing our past can help us understand our present.
Ironically, this movie about uncovering your family's history may not be appropriate for family audiences. Sex is a favorite topic of Alex's, and he often questions Jonathan about his experiences with American women. Other scenes describe a massacre at a small town, and flashback sequences show many decaying bodies. Also, the bloody aftermath of a suicide is depicted. Parents should note as well that only part of the dialogue is spoken in English--the rest is in other languages requiring audiences to be old enough to read subtitles.
This is the sort of picture that will leave you pondering about whether or not there was a greater meaning you might have missed the first time through. For actor Live Schreiber's initial directorial effort, this is a valid work-- beautifully photographed and superbly performed by Wood and the rest of the cast of relative unknowns. Yet, while all the pieces are there, the dramatic ending seems unjustified for a movie that plays out in vague subtleties. Perhaps Schreiber needed to shed a little more light on his passion with this story in order for the viewer to leave feeling truly illuminated.