It's A Plot!…to make the world die laughing!
Made in the middle of the Cold War, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a risky, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to meld a wacky comedy with a "strong political statement." As expected for a not so well known catalog title, MGM's presentation is acceptable but by no means spectacular.
Facts of the Case
When a Soviet submarine commander runs his submarine aground off an island near the New England coast, he's aghast. All he wanted to do was take a look at America! He's well and truly stuck, so Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) is dispatched with a pack of Soviet sailors to find a powerboat capable of freeing the submarine. They don't have too much luck, even after holding frustrated playwright Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner), his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint), and their family at gunpoint.
As Rozanov's group sneaks around, they accomplish little aside from tying up an elderly postmistress, cutting phone cords, and in general causing a tidal wave of paranoia to sweep the island. Weary police chief Link Mattocks (Brian Keith) reluctantly drives to the "airport" to dispel rumors of Russian paratroops, prodded by the saber-drawn urgings of Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford Weaver). Unfortunately, that leaves his panicky deputy, Officer Norman Jones (Jonathan Winters) in charge. Matters continue to deteriorate, further complicated by misunderstandings, a budding love affair between sailor Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law) and Alison Palmer (Andrea Dromm), until the Americans and Russians reach a final confrontation.
Comedies come in all sorts of flavors. The best leave you crying and gasping for air, others have you laughing and chortling, or snickering and grinning. Occasionally, the humor can cut so far to the bone you're not sure whether to wince, laugh, or both. Continuing to slide down the scale, the humor become less frequent, the grins turn to smiles, and very soon the enjoyment disappears together. Nothing is more painful than a movie purporting to be a comedy that is not, either by reason of extreme lameness, pegging the disgust-o-rama meter, heavy handed politics, or any (or all!) of the above. Fortunately, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is not a bomb-throwing disaster, though the humor is merely of the mild smiling variety. Why such damning with faint praise?
Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof, Moonstruck) seems quite pleased with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming as he reminisces in the making-of featurette, being flattered by the positive reactions of his Hollywood colleagues but particularly the accolades of Russian political and artistic leaders. Jewison emphasizes quite clearly that he wanted The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming to make a "strong political statement." An error in substantive and creative terms, therein lies the first, but by no means the last, error of the film.
Jewison's "strong political statement," shared by many so-called intelligentsia, seems to amount to a false moral equivalence between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War, but this is not a fatal flaw. Even Jewison, intoxicated by the heady vapors of his Canadian moral superiority [Editor's Note: Canucks, please send all hate mail directly to Nicholas, not to me.], sees the wisdom in not using the largest and least subtle morality club to beat his audience about the head. Thus, Jewison makes an effort to give the Russians and Americans believable emotional interactions, so that we recognize the characters (with minor exceptions) as textured humans and not merely caricatures. However, when layering on the "strong political statement" at various points in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Jewison ends up adding politics at the cost of humor. For an ostensible comedy, this is not a good thing.
The peak moments of nausea are tolerably quick to pass, especially if you pick the right times to go make popcorn or grab a soda. Sadly, the preeminent flaw of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is its length. Not only is the humor of the thin soup variety, lacking zest and punch, but also there's just not enough to go around and fill up a film over two hours in length. There's a decent ninety minute film screaming to get out from under the ponderous weight of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, but that's not the film Jewison made. His posterity is the poorer for that decision.
A star-studded cast is this film's strength, reminding me of its more successful cousin It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Alan Arkin (Gattaca, Glengarry Glen Ross, Catch-22) is so good, you almost believe he is a lost Russian sailor. He plays it so straight, with an uncanny Russian accent, that Rozanov's dry humor is brilliantly amplified. Close behind in the funny but credible performance category is Carl Reiner. Resisting the temptation to go over the top or descend into slapstick, he wisely sticks to a fine comedic everyman performance. Strong supporting performances are turned in by the gleefully insane Jonathan Winters (Moon Over Parador, Mork and Mindy, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) and superior character actors Paul Ford (The Phil Silvers Show) and Brian Keith (Family Affair, The Parent Trap (1961)) doing their best despite the overlong script.
The anamorphic video is a good quality reproduction for a film shot nearly forty years ago. Digital edge enhancement is slight, colors moderately saturated, but the film defects (scratches, dirt and so on) come steadily, but without being too distracting. Nothing to take your breath away, but then again not every film can be Lawrence Of Arabia. There is not much to say about the audio. It's clear, uncomplicated mono.
Aside from the original theatrical trailer for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, the only extra is a 23-minute making-of featurette "The Russians Are Coming to Hollywood." The box says it is "hosted" by Norman Jewison. In actuality, it is nothing but Norman Jewison. Granted, as director and producer, he's in a unique position to offer insights regarding his film, but an unrelieved diet of Jewison gets a little tiresome. I suppose MGM could have easily slapped The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming out as a bare bones release, so I was still pleased to see a substantial length featurette of any sort.
On the subject of bare bones, I have to wonder about the totally spartan keep case. For the love of DVD, there's not even a chapter list insert! Is MGM getting that cheap with its catalog titles?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When Jewison is recounting the accolades and positive reception on the Russian front, he seems to lack any sense of the irony of his situation. When artistic expression is subordinated to the demands of the Communist party and its apparatchiks, squishing the vestiges of freedom under its bloody boot, does it not seem bizarre for a man exercising his unfettered freedom of expression to gain the accolades of men devoted to oppression, and victims of that same oppression?
On the acting front, while casting Eva Marie Saint may have helped Jewison get The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming made, it's a pity he didn't have more for her to do. From On The Waterfront and North By Northwest, you can be sure she's possessed of fine talents, but her Elspeth here has no opportunity to be dramatic, humorous, or romantic. Well, to quote Ned Beatty from Back To School, I hope it was a really big check.
One more thing. Andrea Dromm? Very lovely. John Phillip Law? Quite handsome. Add them together? Forced romance. Bleccch! Quick, to the editor's booth!
Reasonably priced ($20 list), mildly funny and family safe, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is still worth a rental for fans of wry, low-key humor or of the fine ensemble cast.
A creature of its times, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is nevertheless guilty of insufficient comedy in excessive running time. MGM has done the minimum required for DVD, though the Court wishes for a greater consistent effort.
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