Blinded by the Light
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (Liev Schreiber, USA/Ukraine, 2005, 4)
The key to what’s wrong is that awkward title, which sounds like it was written by someone for whom English is a second language (“things get clarified” or “everything becomes clear” are closer to idiomatic English). And, like someone speaking a second language, the strange mix of disparate tones and subject matter ILLUMINATED maintains always keeps everything just a little “off,” like in a David Lynch movie or NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (I speak as someone who is not a Lynch fan, THE STRAIGHT STORY aside, and who liked NAPOLEON some, but never joined the cult). Maybe those of us who criticize the solemnity of Holocaust movies like THE PIANIST, myself included, should think of this movie next time we want to hoot at such things.
The story is straightforward enough — young American Jew (Elijah Wood) travels to Ukraine, inspired by a deathbed conversation, to learn about his family’s WW2 past. He meets up with two incompetent tour guides and they spent much of ILLUMINATED on the road trying to find a village that doesn’t seem to exist (three guesses why … only people ignorant of 20th century history and who have never seen a movie get to guess though). But everything about the style and details are just too … “too.” Arch, Inconsistent. Off-putting. The contrast between Wood’s perfectly black, straight hair and his perfect pallid and smooth complexion is just too … too. Wood’s enormous ubernerd glasses are too … too.
The two Ukrainian tour guides, a grandfather-grandson team, are the too-est of the too. The grandson (Eugene Hutz), with his malaprop-filled accented English and love for famous Negroes like Michael Jackson (really — that’s the tone of this movie), is like a cross between Ali G and one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s other characters, Kazakh newsman Borat. The grandfather (Boris Leskin) only speaks Ukrainian throughout, is obviously contemptuous of the zhid in the car’s back seat and is supposedly blind, but manages to drive the car with the help of his seeing-eye bitch Sammy Davis Junior Jr. (is this getting annoying yet?).
Schreiber has much more of an eye than we might expect of the actor-turned-director, and he shoots ILLUMINATED like a mildly surreal fairy tale — the final destination is in the middle of a field of brilliant sunflowers that stretch uniformly for an impossible distance, but in the center is a splash of white bedsheets drying on the line. Schreiber varies and makes use of film stocks, splashes of color amid a generally drained-out pallette, and overexposure in light. I’d like to see what else Schreiber can do as a director.
This sniggering tone and hyper-real style is not my favorite even in the Indiewood coming-of-age emo comedies where it originated. But what is it doing in THIS movie, about a search for Holocaust victims and survivors? I was more … stupefied and alienated and distanced than exactly offended — how dare they desecrate the memory of Auschwitz etc. Except for when the time comes for The Big Revelatory Memory Speech, in Ukrainian. And now … Hutz suddenly and miraculously acquires the ability to translate into English that sounds like English. Revealing that what went before was a Slavic Minstrel Show.
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