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Everything is Illuminated

Better Than the Book

Books have a way of engaging you differently from that of any other medium. It takes hours, weeks, and even months to finish a book. On the other hand, watching a movie takes an average of two hours, three on rare occasions. Plus, somebody else is already interpreting the material for you, removing you even further from it. Which is why when it comes to films based on novels (of which there are many), the book is usually better. As a writer, I would like to say the book is always better, but the celluloid version of author Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated has barred me from ever saying something like that again. In this rare case, the movie is better than the book.

Adapted to the screen by Liev Schreiber, Everything is Illuminated the movie does right everything the book did wrong. You can practically see Schreiber cutting and pasting the script together. This is not to say that the movie does not stay true to the novel. While there are some changes and deletions, the movie stays true to the essential story. In fact, it improves upon it.

After his ailing grandmother hands Jonathan Safran Foer, or Jonfan as his Ukrainian guides refer to him, (played with aplomb by Elijah Wood sporting an enormous pair of spectacles the size of magnifying glasses), a mysterious photo of his deceased Jewish grandfather standing in a field alongside a beautiful young woman, he goes in search of his family's painful past. A collector of all and any kind of relic associated with his family, which he stores in an endless supply of Ziploc bags so that those moments are never lost, the sober Foer travels to the Ukraine with both trepidation and relish and uncovers an ugly history full of persecution, as well as redemption.

He books the services of Heritage Tours, specializing in helping wealthy Jewish people find lost relatives. In comes one the most memorable characters to hit the screen this year, Alex (Eugene "this guy should be famous' Hutz), whose is bestowed by his violent father to act as an interpreter for the hapless and, to much suspicion and speculation, vegetarian Foer. Much of the humor in Everything is Illuminated is derived from Alex's thesaurus-reliant English and his deadpan statements. His gruff yet beloved grandfather (Boris Leskin), who professes that he is blind, acts as the driver. Grandpa's mentally deranged "seeing-eye bitch" Sammy Davis Junior Jr. also comes along for the ride.

While the movie is about Foer's exploration into his grandfather's past and his quest to find the woman in the photo, it is also as much about the sweet and na´ve Alex's relationship with his own grandfather. Everything is Illuminated is superb. The direction is clever and insightful, and the acting is engaging and brimming with talent. Leskin as Grandfather is a total scene-stealer. He portrays his character with both restraint and great emotion -- a rare feat. Furthermore, the soundtrack is full of moving and haunting music from the band Leningrad (particularly great is their song "Dikiy Muzhchina) and composer Paul Cantelon among others.

Everything is Illuminated is lovely, beautiful, heartfelt and funny. And above all things: genuine. By all means read the book, but definitely go see the movie.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars