Thursday, September 29, 2005

Everything is Illuminated

It’s not easy to dislike a Holocaust movie. I mean, it’s one of history’s greatest tragedies, 6 million people died. It was horrible and will always be a stain on history. The problem is I just pretty much explained the lot of what Everything is Illuminated will try to tell you, and chances are you already knew all of that. The movie is rather clumsily put together and never really gets going anywhere worth caring about, rehashing clichés in a guilt inducing, heavy handed, and moralistic way.

Based on a novel (true story?) by Jonathan Safran Foer, the directorial debut by actor Liev Schreiber is being marketed as an indie film in the vein of Garden State, I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine or any film that looks remotely Wes Andersonish. Never mind that none of those are actually indie, that’s another topic altogether and Everything is Illuminated doesn’t actually look much like those at all with the exception of a few obtuse camera angles, a field of sunflowers and a rather silent stoic main character. Instead it seems to be aping the visual style of those films and the flaws show in the huge, ill-fitting crane shots that pop up every once in a while for no particular reason. Over all though, the film’s look is pleasant if slightly derivative and Matthew Libatique continues to prove to be a top rate cinematographer. If anything the film isn’t ugly.

Unfortunately, the slight prettiness can’t save the storyline: Jonathan Foer is a Holocaust obsessive who “collects” WW2 remnants so as not to forget. He is creepy as all hell, but the film makes no light of this. At his grandmother’s deathbed, he finds a clue as to the woman who saved his Grandfather from the Holocaust in Ukraine. He heads off to Odessa where his tour guides are an old “blind” coot and an America-loving faux b-boy. Thus begins their journey to illumination. The problem is that the film never addresses Foer’s obsession and treats it as completely natural. The other two characters learn something: the tragedy of the Holocaust but…shouldn’t that weird Jewish American kid learn something too? Maybe something about living for the future? Apparently not and the film thus seems overly pandering to the cult of guilt, never missing a chance to smack the audience in the back of the head with its point. It’s tiresome and depressing if you have the slightest inkling to look forward instead of backwards. Never Forget sure, but obsess ain’t that great either. Elijah Wood is ill suited for the main character. Seemingly stoic and serious, an overabundance of youthful energy bursts out every time he speaks: he’s going to need to tone it down, both literally and figuratively, if he’s going to go for those Bill Murray roles. Eugene Hutz steals the show as Ukrainian b-boy Alex which isn’t difficult considering he’s comic relief in an ultra-moralistic story. Still, if anyone needs a funny Russian gangster they should consider casting him. The rest of the characters are pretty standard and fail to expand upon a basic archetype, symptomatic of the film in general.

Everything is Illuminated isn’t BAD. It’s just not saying anything that hasn’t been said better before. It feels like a big studio film squeezed into a hip indie form and generally comes off as awkwardly as its main character is meant to: I can’t imagine anyone except Holocaust scholars and very Jewish people getting into this one. Additionally, as a person of Jewish heritage I was pretty pissed at how they chose to portray Jews as obsessive nerds living in the past. My family knows about the Holocaust but lord knows it doesn’t get brought up at every family dinner. There’s a whole lot more to Judaism than the fact that 6 million people died and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t even attempt to go there. From Jonathan’s nerdy 1950’s aping demeanor to his total separation from the world around him, he and the film about him represent Jews and Judaism as isolationist and infatuated, unable to define themselves outside of the worst moment of human history. That simply isn’t true.

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