Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer Everything Is Illuminated is the story of the author's journey to track down the woman who saved his grandfather during the Nazi invasion. Foer (Wood) winds up finding a lot more than he'd bargained for including his own quirky threshold being tested. Upon arriving in Ukraine he is met by his host family a grandson-grandfather duo comprised of American-culture junkie Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his self-proclaimed "blind" grandfather (Boris Leskin). Things immediately take a turn for the funny when Jonathan himself eccentric and phobic learns that Alex will be his translator and Alex's grandfather his driver. And he's less than thrilled to learn that the blind chauffeur's "seeing-eye bitch " Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. will be accompanying them; Foer has a crippling fear of dogs. But in one of the film's ongoing theme Jonathan learns to adapt. When the trio finally finds what they've been searching for it leads to closure for all but mostly for Alex's grandfather. For the first time in ages he is no longer blind which for him brings both rewards and consequences.
Everything Is Illuminated has a top-notch ensemble cast with Wood turning in the film's third-best performance. He doesn't exactly get to spread his post-Frodo wings but his minimalist performance is subtle and unobtrusive in a way that adds to Foer's mystique and ultimate growth. It also allows Hutz and Leskin to shine--and boy do they ever. In his acting debut Hutz absolutely steals the movie. He is at times hilarious providing the necessary comic relief as an appropriate symbol of what America represents to its faceless admirers abroad. Then at other times Hutz is devastating and pensive mostly when he removes his hat and exposes his face revealing a vulnerability that contrasts his flamboyant personality. Perhaps it's not such a departure for Hutz who in his own life is an American transplant and front man of underground punk band Gogol Bordello. Then there's Leskin who only has a few American films to his credit but a wide and varied career in European cinema. Although his appearances are brief he shines through as his character's arc involves the full emotional spectrum ending with illumination.
Long live Liev Schreiber! At least that's the praise each of these three fortunate actors should be singing in exchange for Schreiber giving them such rich and career-boosting parts. But Illuminated is really Schreiber's baby his own labor of love. Having adapting Foer's novel himself its themes truly hit home for the actor-turned-director whose own late grandfather survived the Holocaust. But the film's journey to the big screen hasn't been easy. It's taken about four years to get the film made and finally released but as Schreiber told Premiere magazine "I wanted to make a film like the films I love." Most first-time directors need some sort of mentor or babysitter on-set to guide them through but since Schreiber is such an esteemed veteran of countless films (The Manchurian Candidate and HBO's RKO 281 as some of his best) that it looks like it comes naturally to him. With a mixture of exotic music and offbeat humor he successfully brings a story that might have been better suited for television. If Schreiber can find the time between his many current acting gigs including his highly successful run of Glengarry Glen Rosson Broadway he may have a new chair to comfortably sit in--the director's chair.