Robin Williams will make you laugh and cry as a freedom-loving Soviet defector in this thought-provoking romantic comedy (phew!).
Moscow on the Hudson is more pertinent today than ever before. Robin Williams stars as Vladimir Ivanoff, a Soviet circus musician who defects to the U.S. Williams, then best known as Mork from the hit series Mork and Mindy, received critical acclaim and earned him a Golden Globe nomination for a performance that was a far cry from his trademark frenzied comedy. Overall, the film was well received, and no doubt will find a new audience during times where Americans seek a view of our wonderful, though imperfect, world and the opportunities it provides.
Facts of the Case
Vladimir Ivanoff (Williams) tries to convince his fellow Soviet circus performer Anatoly not to defect. Sure enough, the KGB spies on Anatoly during the circus' trip to New York City. As Vlad purchases a pair of Jordache jeans in Bloomingdale's for his girlfriend back home, he is called back to the touring bus for the trip back to Moscow. Anatoly chickens out, but remembering the hardship of his homeland, Vlad unexpectedly bolts—and slips out of the KGB's fingers to start a new life. Paul Mazursky co-wrote (with Leon Capetanos) and directed this picture of how that life unfolds.
It's not an easy thing to defect, but it sure seems to beat living in the Soviet Union. Vlad, a kind and bearish man, had a gentle sense of humor to get him through the long waits for common household goods and crowded living arrangements necessary to survival in the USSR. Once in New York, he sees why America is truly called the Land of Opportunity.
Immediately upon deciding to defect, Vlad finds shelter with a black security guard Lionel (Cleavant Derricks), and almost as quickly starts hanging out with an Italian hottie saleswoman, Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso). They form a fast, tight, and entertaining friendship, thanks mostly to Derricks' fast mouth and attitude as Lionel.
Vlad's continued initiation into his new life runs like clockwork—a string of starter jobs, dabbling in jazz nightlife, renting his own place. Of course, there are pitfalls and problems. Firstly, he's left his beloved family behind; this is especially poignant when he receives word of his grandfather's death. There is the danger and oddness of New York life—the out and proud homosexuality and crime. There is poverty—for some reason, no one in Lionel's crowded household can get a job except for him. And of course, women—Lucia wants to date someone more…American.
Moscow on the Hudson shows that what makes America great also makes it dangerous, mean, and heartless. Capitalism causes greed, racism abounds, and crime sprouts when the system forgets the poorest. Unsure of his choice at times, disgusted at Americans' cavalier attitude towards their freedom, Vlad learns to live the imperfection of a robust capitalist society. Reflecting this conflict, Williams turns in a nuanced and sweet performance, passionate yet not overwrought. Plus, his Russian accent is spot-on.
Moscow on the Hudson has two screening options: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and full frame. The picture looked nice, with solid colors, a general lack of edge enhancement, and great tones in the night scenes. There was no grain or dirt that I could see—this is a very nice transfer by Columbia.
Sound options included English 4.0 discrete surround sound and Dolby 2-channel surround. The discrete surround was nice—background noise and dialogue were well mixed, and the effect was a fully realized, as opposed to overdone, experience. Sound also comes in an optional French track. Subtitles run the gamut from English to Thai, all set to lure other overseas freedom seekers to the American shores.
Now let's get to the real fun: The extras! Well, once again, as happens on some DVDs, we get bonus trailers…from other movies. No Moscow on the Hudson trailer. Well, I guess they figured the whole movie would more than take the place of a trailer. So no Moscow on the Hudson trailer for archival purposes. Director Paul Mazursky's commentary was educational, but not much more exciting than that. With long pauses and uninspired anecdotes, it arms one with trivia, but not much enjoyment. He does think Williams should have gotten an Oscar nomination, though, and I agree with him on that one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, Vlad had an easier time settling into American life than I had moving from Chicago to Los Angeles. I still can't speak the language out here. The smoothness with which he assimilated into American life, especially financially, is a little hard to swallow. His apartment in NYC is pretty hot for a McDonald worker's wages, plus, Lionel's father, despite having a college degree, just can't get a job, while a subsequent montage shows Vlad several times employed. Maybe that's a statement on racial values in America, but New York is a pretty diverse city and if that is the statement Mazursky was trying to make, there was no clear yet subtle sign as such.
One thing Moscow on the Hudson left by the wayside was Vlad's fight for citizenship. We do see how Lucia studies for her citizenry test, giving us a view of what immigrants endure, but we're most interested in Vlad's journey.
Overall, there are a few too easy answers in Moscow on the Hudson. The theme of America the imperfect is truly expressed, but I'd like Mazursky to try to rent a spacious studio in New York City on minimum wage and see how easy that is!
Moscow on the Hudson is no waste of time, especially when a little dose of American-inspired hope and opportunity could do us all some good in these troubled times. The core theme of America's obstacle-laden dream is solid, but the accompanying plot-wise pitfalls tend to tarnish its telling.
Good for a viewing on Independence Day or any day of the year—as long as you can hold on to a little suspension of disbelief.
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