Feb 20, 2014

Retro Grading: Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

Robin Williams
Welcome to Retro Grading: a sporadic column that looks at forgotten cinema released before 2000. The main objective of this column will be to highlight films that time hasn't treated as well as the classics. But these are all classics in their own way and while all of the subjects won't be gems, they are all small flickering signs of ingenuity that in some ways rival their competitors. Retro Grading will attempt to highlight these films and hopefully fill your Netflix queue with alternative programming. 
With the Olympics currently being held in Sochi, Russia and Robin Williams currently appearing on TV in The Crazy Ones, it feels timely to discuss director Paul Mazursky's underrated Moscow on the Hudson, which will be turning 30 years old this upcoming April. Following the journey of a Russian circus to New York, the story captures the immigrant experience during the Cold War as Vladimir Ivanoff (Williams) and his pal Anatoly (Elya Baskin) decide to defect from their country and start a new life full of lousy jobs and desire to live the American Dream. It is a tale of struggle and a real understanding of identity.
The film itself seems to have been forgotten when considering Williams as a legitimate actor. Many will either consider his best years behind him and is now a hacky comic (RVOld Dogs) or consider his dramatic chops to be underused (Insomnia, One Hour Photo). Either way, his versatility has been greatly misunderstood and with a career spanning almost 40 years, it is impossible to remember all of his achievements, especially when noting his madcap stand-up comedy persona that identifies him most. Even for those that take his work seriously, films such as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and his Academy Award win for Good Will Hunting all overshadow Moscow on the Hudson, which remains deserving of revisiting.
It may not be the only film in which he played a Russian (Jakob the Liar), but his dedication to craft here is unprecedented for most of his other roles. For this film, he had to learn to speak Russian as well as how to play the saxophone. There are entire passages in the film where the actor is seen speaking the language fluently. His commitment is convincing, even before the somber vulnerability of the stranger in a strange land factors in. It is at times funny, but never in a broad sensibility where culture is played for laughs, only the disconnection.
Mazursky's initial conceptualization of it seemed fitting for 1984, when tensions were still high. By setting it in 1980, he managed to capture a deeper understanding not only of cultural perception, but the jaded viewpoints of freedom that America possessed during the time to an oppressed nation. During an interview, the director stated "Most Russians are just trying to survive. Yet, all Russians who leave their country leave behind something they treasure and love. It's a terrible conflict for them, so the act of bravery is overwhelming."
This humbleness definitely shows up through the tone of the film. Even if it is sometimes comedic, the feeling of isolation and not quite feeling free create dramatic tension that essentially serves as the film's big struggle. There's romance and even an entire discussion had in the film that lays the themes of freedom clearly in a diner on Independence Day with a series of minorities:


What starts as a discussion of being imprisoned slowly turns into a discussion of liberties. When Vladimir runs into another Russian who has lived there for seven years, a dispute breaks out over Vladimir's distaste for the country. The burly stranger tells him to go back to Moscow and stand in line for stale bread. Moments later, when firecrackers go off, they discuss Independence Day before stating the given rights they have in the country: "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It is the unifying theme that sends a delightful cheer over the diner. It is also the defining factor of the film that paints the complicated picture not only of Russian immigrants, but of those who continue to immigrate for hopes of a better life. At a distance, it doesn't look so great, but at its core, there is plenty that is taken for granted and thus we should all be a little more grateful.
One of the perks of the film is that Vladimir eventually finds his place in America by playing saxophone at a nightclub. His days of slaving away at menial jobs come to fruition with a founded sense of identity and a female immigrant that he loves named Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso). There is a defining sense of unity despite the country being a melting pot of cultures. The film's success lies in not only depicting the hard times, but making the simple things seem like triumphant successes. At its core, it is a humbling film with a lot to say about tolerance and hard work as well as the historical era that it depicts. Things have changed in cultural understandings, but the film feels as timeless today for the messages.
It is also one of Williams' best. When considering his vast catalog, those who respect his dramatic roles often overlook Moscow on the Hudson for his crazier dramatizations such as The Fisher King or Awakenings. While this is a testament to his diverse craft, it could also be simply based on the timing of the film. By 1984, the closest that Williams had come to a dramatic role was The World According to Garp and nothing else. Good Morning Vietnam was three years off and the Mork & Mindy series was still fresh in people's minds. The manic comedian's skill for cadences didn't help either to distinguish a sincere effort from his caricatures that he brought to his specials such as "A Night at the Met." Even if the film never felt hackneyed, Williams was still the comedian and few people were willing to give the drama with touches of humor a chance to be taken seriously.
A large portion of the success also comes from Mazursky, who had Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice by the time that he crafted Moscow on the Hudson. His reputation had been as an actor as well as writing on The Danny Kaye Show and The Monkees. For his entire career, he holds a special honor of having five total Oscar nominations and six of his films have four star reviews from Roger Ebert. In 1986, the critic stated that "Mazursky has a way of making comedies that are more intelligent and relevant than most of the serious films around." With Moscow on the Hudson being one of these four star reviews, it is a comment that makes entire sense.



Even if Russia has changed, it is still interesting to watch this film and not think of the current discussions of Sochi. As shown in the clip above, there is a certain sensibility that Russia had towards Americans in the 80's about being disgusting. While the scene has comedic undertones, the messages are serious and important to establishing the paranoia between the countries. It is infamously known that current leader Vladimir Putin's Olympics are meant to be free of certain freedoms involving open displays of homosexuality. The sense that one could manipulate a country's stability in this manner is funny, despite having devastating consequences. In many ways, Sochi 2014 is the antithesis to Moscow on the Hudson in 2014 in that America's land of opportunity still has some detractors.
It is a film that will hopefully resonate now more than any other recent time. Even if it gets overshadowed by the other 1984 behemoths of film such as Amadeus and Ghostbusters, it does justice to defining why Williams is an underrated actor. His vulnerability and comedic chops are best portioned out here and bring a sense of realism that few other performers could do. His work to not only learn the language but embody the physicality is something that, if done by someone established such as Daniel Day Lewis, would have gotten him a guaranteed Oscar nomination. As evident by his lack of Oscar wins until 1997 with Good Will Hunting, he is a performer whose efforts will unfortunately be ignored in favor of his outlandish comedies such as Mrs. Doubtfire or The Birdcage
Maybe he will never become universally accepted as one of the great actors because of his ambitious hodgepodge of a career. However, when he does find a project that not only captures the two sides to his skills but has a poignant message, it transcends. Moscow on the Hudson remains a film that feels more urgent than any other Williams film really does. Immigration and xenophobia are still things that affect American freedoms and with very few films being definitive marks on the melting pot concept of America, this is one that comes full on with heart, humor, and insight. Even if Mrs. Doubtfire has more laughs and Good Will Hunting has more sincerity, neither really compare to the dedication to craft perceived in this film. If nothing else, few films have had the courage to depict Russians this sympathetically in an American film before or since.

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