Moscow on the Hudson

Moscow on the Hudson. Columbia Pictures 1984.

Before watching the movie:

Here’s another movie about which I know absolutely nothing, found through automated recommendations. On the one hand, it’s Robin Williams in the 80s, so it could be a wacky fish out of water comedy. On the other, they say that when Robin Williams wears a beard, he thinks it’s a serious film. I’m getting vibes of The Terminal and Being There, a pair of movies very unlike each other.

What I’m ultimately expecting is a comedy with a lot of warmth, patriotism, and jokes stolen from Yakov Smirnoff.

Oh look, yet another Cold War movie. I seem to have grown up from World War II into the next big one.

After watching the movie:

Vladimir Ivanoff is a saxophone player in a Soviet circus, getting ready for the troupe’s trip to America. His best friend Boris, the circus’s lead clown, tells him he’s planning to defect when they get there, but Vladimir wants nothing to do with it. However, once they are in New York, it is Vladimir who defects, having had enough when he sees Boris’s attempt suppressed. Vladimir is lucky enough to have a kind security guard give him a place to stay, and an Italian-American shop clerk to date. But freedom isn’t the bed of roses it looked like back home.

This film isn’t tragic enough to be a drama, or funny enough to be a comedy. What it is, is bittersweet. If the title wasn’t taken, it ought to be humbly titled Coming To America, because that is entirely what it’s about. This film is the ups and downs of immigrant life in modern America. All the main characters in America are either immigrants, or black people who moved out of Alabama for similar reasons.

I was surprised at how much of the plot happens before the defection. The first twenty minutes are entirely in Russia, and entirely in subtitled Russian. Then the circus’s visit takes about fifteen to twenty minutes of screen time. I was expecting Vladimir to have already defected by fifteen to twenty minutes in, but it took that long to build a full picture of everything he was leaving behind at home.

Since this is a slice of life story, there isn’t much driving the plot in the second half, after Vladimir has gotten settled in New York. He works half a dozen jobs and writes letters to his family. The closest thing to plot the film has in this period is his relationship with the shop clerk Lucia, but his culture shock and melancholy are only tangentially related to her. There are two or three times Vladimir reunites with someone through sheer serendipity that only serve to forward the plot, but they are all written to be very human and realistic.

This is entirely unlike the sort of movie I was hoping for, but as a light yet deep feel-good movie, it’s exceptional.


Watch this movie: as a snapshot of immigrant life.

Don’t watch this movie: if a drink of water is always too bland for you.

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