Moscow On The Hudson (1984)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1984. , , . Screenplay by Paul Mazursky, . Cinematography by . Produced by Paul Mazursky. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by , . Film Editing by .

A newcomer to New York City gets on a bus and asks a passenger directions to his destination, which the friendly stranger gives him before flashing back to his own origins in the Big Apple. The stranger’s name is Vladimir () and begin with him playing the saxophone in a Moscow circus that is preparing for a trip to the United States, which his best friend Anatoly (), who performs as a clown in their troupe, has every intention to use as an opportunity to defect. The Soviet Union’s communist project has fallen into disrepair and the distance between the country’s theoretical idealism and its state-sanctioned political repression has reached a punishing extreme, and while Vladimir can’t imagine leaving his beloved family or his girlfriend behind, he certainly can understand the appeal of a place that doesn’t require miles-long queues just for toilet paper.

In New York City, the troupe perform their gig and on the way back to the airport stop for some quick shopping at Bloomingdale’s; Anatoly gets cold feet and allows his paranoid supervisors to board him back on their bus (ironically a Liberty Lines bus, no less), but Vladimir, despite having previously expressed no intention of doing so, is inspired to stay in the land of Charlie Parker’s jazz and tells a store security guard named Lionel () that he wants to defect.

New York City cops arrive, Soviet escorts desperately try to get Vladimir back in line and Connie Chung’s news camera is on the scene to capture it all, during which Lionel agrees to let Vladimir stay with him now that he’s planning to seek asylum.

Early days as a new immigrant are tough but Vladimir works hard at a series of jobs (bus boy, taxi driver, McDonald’s server, often more than one at a time) while attending a number of meetings with bureaucrats, his one comfort a romance with a beautiful Italian perfume seller () who fills his lonelier hours.

The intensity of New York City piles up on him, however, and between trouble in love, the difficulty of pursuing his dream of working as a musician and the odd mugging, Vladimir begins to wonder just how much better things are in his new homeland: at least in Russia the lack of freedom was an official policy, in America freedom comes at a high price and a society that paints itself as happy and successful is actually riddled with the anxiety of confused ambition.

This sometimes unfocused, somewhat overlong but wholly affecting film by Paul Mazursky is a valentine to immigration, an element of America’s history that is a huge part of what has always made it a great idea even when, on a daily basis, it’s not always a great experience. Mazursky’s style of cynical charm keeps a lid on the sentimental stuff by never letting us ignore the cracks in the pavement, appreciating that the very act of navigating those cracks is where you find all of life’s happiness.

Williams gives one of the most heartfelt performances of his whole career here, a very precious opportunity to see him at his most vulnerable and delicate. His box-office breakthrough in Good Morning, Vietnam would come out a few years later and cement his famous persona as a verbally diuretic comedic genius, a brand of stardom that would also pull a veneer over the softer qualities which would rarely be on display again.

Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Actor-Musical/Comedy (Robin Williams)



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