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August 20, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»drama

Movie Review: Everything Is Illuminated

If it had been released a year ago, Everything Is Illuminated would have probably been seen as the dramatic counterpoint to Borat. Both feature America-loving, Soviet-bloc protagonists with a penchant for misappropriating the English language and an ambivalent relationship with Jews. But where Borat uses language as a way to set his listeners off balance, Illuminated's Alex seems to instead have simply dragged its words into a configuration that makes him more comfortable, like bringing a footstool into reach. More generally, Borat puts a foreign character into normal situations to heighten their absurdity, Illuminated eventually reveals these oddities as only thinly exotic versions of typical indie-comedy quirks, which, as usual for this kind of movie, are soon pulled back for more affecting fare.

At heart, this is a road-trip movie structurally similar to Little Miss Sunshine or (more distantly) Y Tu Mama Tambien. Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a Jewish-American writer who travels to the Ukraine in search of his family's history. He hires Alex (and his grandfather, who professes to be blind despite all evidence to the contrary) to guide him from Odessa to the town of Trachimbrod, where Jonathan's grandfather grew up before traveling to America during WWII. The three travel in a tiny Russian car through broad Ukrainian landscapes, accompanied by the grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch," a deranged pound-puppy named Sammy Davis Junior Jr.

If this sounds precious, it's no doubt far less so than the original novel, in which author Jonathan Safran Foer inserts himself as his own character, plays with multiple timelines, and writes partly in a magical-realist style--although, having read his Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I suspect it is less "magical-realist" and more "hipster-pretentious." One of the more enjoyable parts of the film adaptation is that it cuts the literary fiction flourishes and makes "Jonathan Safran Foer" just another character, which is much more interesting than a walking reminder of the author's cleverness.

Nevertheless, during the mandatory indie-comedy roadtrip, Illuminated slowly sheds itself of the kind of easy targets derived from culture-shock and "quirky" characters, and begins to pick at the underlying threads of discontent in Alex's family (helped in large part by the likable presence of Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz), as well as the uncomfortable history of Jonathan's grandfather. It would be easy to criticize this as a transition from one cliched genre to another--that of the belabored Holocaust film--but to do so is to ignore that these cliches are most frustrating when they're done poorly, or half-heartedly. Illuminated handles both its slapstick and its pathos with competence, if not greatness, and the transition is handled gracefully enough so as not to be jarring. In the end, I found it to be a sweetly touching movie--surprisingly so, considering its pedigree.

August 21, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»drama

Scoop

In 2005, Woody Allen made Match Point. It surprised a lot of people, because it was A) not a screwball comedy, B) did not put Allen on screen, and C) was actually quite good (perhaps because of A and B).

I haven't watched a lot of Woody Allen movies, but I enjoyed Match Point. So I was looking forward to Scoop, his next film. Like its predecessor, it stars Scarlet Johansson, it is set in England, and it concerns itself with murderous aristocrats--but this time, it is a screwball comedy, it does include Woody Allen, and unfortunately it's not very good at all.

Scoop sets up Johansson as a college reporter on vacation in London who attends a magic show hosted by The Great Splendini (Allen), only to be visited by the ghost of an investigative journalist (Deadwood's Ian McShane) who says that a rich playboy (Hugh Jackman) is actually the Tarot Card Killer. Johansson teams up with Allen to uncover the story, while trying not to fall for the killer. If that sounds like a stretch, it's because it is.

At around 90 minutes, you wouldn't expect the movie to move slowly, but it does. I'd say that it's due to Allen's dawdling performance as Splendini, but the pace remains slack even when he's not on screen. When you've got a premise as offbeat as this, you really need it to be snappy to distract from the plot holes and the awkward story constraints, and Scoop is anything but.

It doesn't help that there's no chemistry at all between any of the three leads, making their actions seem disjointed. Allen and Johansson bicker amiably enough, but there's no real affection there, and I could never quite figure out why they were working together. Likewise, why Jackman and Johansson become involved is a mystery--and making Scarlet Johansson seem unappealing is an impressive feat. It's particularly odd, considering that in Match Point she was such a sexually-charged figure. Clearly, it wouldn't match the tone of the rest of the film for her to be a full-on seductress, but a little romantic tension is desparately needed. She and Jackman are boring together, if not a little creepy.

Hints of a better, funnier movie peek out from time to time in Scoop, which makes it all the more disappointing. There are some good lines here for both Johansson and Allen, even if they're lethargically delivered--she doesn't quite seem to get what makes them funny, and he's moving too slow for the one-liners to catch viewers unaware.

Sondra Pransky: I wouldn't be surprised if he asked me to marry him someday.

Sid Waterman: You come from an orthodox family, would they accept a serial killer?

It's a crime against casting that these aren't delivered well (they cry out for someone capable of a Thin Man-styled banter), not to mention the waste of McShane in a tossed-off role that's not much more than a cameo. Surely, there must have been actors better suited to play the roles of cub reporter, aristocrat, and vaudeville entertainer. The material's all there. It's just self-indulgently performed and shot. All of which is what I would have expected, not knowing any better, from a Woody Allen movie. That's the problem with making a Match Point and raising expectations. It becomes more disappointing when they're not met.

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