The history of motion pictures is littered with the remnants of a single, nearly unwavering rule of thumb: Bad works of fiction make great movies, and great works of literature make, at best, mediocre movies. There are exceptions to this rule, and amendments: Movies based on an author's first book, especially if that book is well-received and launches the author's career into the literary stratosphere, should be seen through your fingers.
As you might a horror flick.
So, directed by the gifted actor Liev Schreiber, Everything is Illuminated is not exactly novelist Jonathan Safran Foer's celebrated debut Everything is Illuminated. The great book/mediocre flick rule applies. I won't trudge through the usual litany of reasons why a film is rarely as good as the book it's based on (books plumb inner thoughts better than films, movies rarely capture language, etc.), and yet you have to admire it: Schreiber chose for his directorial debut a book so overextended and ambitious, even if you never knew there was a book, you'd probably detect something is lost in translation.
How could it not be?
Schreiber wrestles it into a simple, heartfelt road picture, but Foer's terrific novel - about a young Jew (played in the movie by a not-especially-Hebrew-like Elijah Wood, wearing huge, distracting eyeglasses, and as unnerving and still as a serial killer) who flies to Ukraine to find the woman who rescued his grandfather from Nazis - felt unfilmmable, and anything but simple.
It hops centuries, has a character speaking entirely in broken English, tosses in magic realism, a few winding sentences, and leaps from the Holocaust to hip hop with barely a pause. It took so many literary detours and was so aggressively eager to be original, when the book wasn't enormously touching or laugh-out-loud funny, you wanted to tie the author down and feed him a copy of Old Man and the Sea and The Elements of Style - particularly the element that begs you to "be obscure clearly."
Foer was obscure partly.
One half of the book was about an 18th century Jewish shtetl and its World War II descendants; then it flipped to a friendship between an anxious American writer (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) and a wild-and-crazy Ukrainian named Alex (played by a genuine find, Eugene Hutz). Alex has a grandfather who says he's blind, a dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Jr., a love of Michael Jackson, and a talent for mauling English syntax into things like:
"Many girls say they want to become carnal with me because I am such a premium dancer."
Schrieber's Everything is Illuminated, despite the gymnastics of its source, is what Strunk and White meant by "be obscure clearly." It scales down that writerly loopy-loop of a story into a funny, whimsical odyssey across a post-Soviet Europe to find a village no one seems to know, until it turns serious, then revelatory. As the title promises, everything is illuminated. Specifically, the past, and how it reveals itself in the shards of the present: Jonathan, a habitual collector of what people leave behind, meets another collector operating on a vast scale, with a more poignant purpose. The film begins as slapstick and ends with a whisper.
As it should - and yet, the problem is nothing about Foer is quiet or modest or soft. Schreiber cuts a smart path through a tangle of material without getting at exactly why the book was written. Holocaust art often struggles with those whys. I have seen Everything is Illuminated twice. The first time it was moving yet thin. The second time, I knew why: the story, as in the book, is not about characters, but the difficulty of getting on the page what has happened to them. It's about broken syntax.
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