Okay By Me in America

Originally published on April 16, 1984 | New York Magazine | written by David Denby

Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams), the Soviet musician who defects to America in Paul Mazursky's sentimentally satisfying new comedy, Moscow on the Hudson, walks around his new home in wonder, a man who hasn't yet learned what he should be afraid of. To be precise, Vlad doesn't defect to America, he defects to New York, that many-towered Babel where, as this movie has it, virtually no one speaks more than a few words of English. Understanding only fragments of what he sees and hears, Vlad isn't wary the way a native New Yorker would be, so he doesn't think it unusual that his best friend is a black from Alabama, a sort of internal émigré; his girlfriend an Italian; and his lawyer a Cuban who floated to Miami some years ago. In this democratic polyglot community, where foreigners confront ex-foreigners, and accents bounce off one another like bumper cars, even the Immigration Service is run by immigrants. ("Who's your boss?" demands an irate Hispanic gentleman who has been kept waiting. "His name is Ronald Ray-gone," says the lady official, in thickest Jamaican. "Now sit de f--k down!") Vlad fits right in.

In Moscow on the Hudson, all these people surprise us with their kindheartedness. They not only like Vlad, who is easy to like -- a solitary saxophone player in love with American jazz -- they also like one another. Moscow on the Hudson is Paul Mazursky's benevolent neo-melting-pot myth; it's about how Babel's towers reach to heaven. Though some of the movie may strike us as naïve or false, we're pulled along by the sweet dreams of a director with so broad and instinctive a sense of human solidarity.

Halfway through The World According to Garp, I began to think Robin Williams might need weights in his shoes to keep from floating in the air -- he was that insubstantial. But this time Williams is securely grounded; he has a real character to play, and he's extraordinarily touching. Bearded, and hairy as a Russian bear, he's a small, nearly innocuous figure in the Moscow scenes, clutching himself against the cold, grimacing at the sight of a three-hour waiting line for toilet paper. Like many citizens of Eastern Europe, Vlad has developed certain defensive strategies. When Jewish protestors are hauled off in black cars, he looks the other way; at the one-ring circus where he plays in the orchestra, he ritually bribes the K.G.B. agent assigned to keep an eye on the performers. His best friend, Anatoly (Elya Baskin), the circus's star clown, is a maudlin fellow with a woebegone rubber face and flapping arms, a noisy complainer whose indiscreet miseries could get them both in trouble. Vlad hates the Soviet Union, too, but he keeps quiet about it. Williams gives him a small, enigmatic smile -- almost a memory of a smile; he makes him a man in a deep freeze, passively accepting despair.

Using Soviet-émigré actors here and in Munich (which doubled for Moscow), Mazursky creates an intensely Russian atmosphere of silent paranoia and strangled exuberance. Vlad's family, with whom he lives in a standard, cramped Moscow high rise, are all professional entertainers, including Vlad's grandfather (Alexander Beniaminov), an enraged, disappointed old man whose half-cracked tirades against the state are always causing a scandal. Williams speaks Russian along with the others, and he's convincing enough, though the native Russians have a guttural sound he can't match. In a great moment, Vlad sings a forbidden Duke Ellington song he calls "Take A Train," and the whole family joins in with shouts and cries but completely off the beat. I don't know if Paul Mazursky could dramatize a scientist's or writer's hunger for intellectual liberty, but his understanding of an entertainer's need for freedom is instinctive -- the need is inseparable from the expressivity.

Mazursky's touch in these Russian scenes is astringent and rueful; the American stuff is much broader. The circus troupe, in New York on a tour, stops at Bloomingdale's, and the Russians become hysterical at the sight of the ground-floor glitz -- designer jeans, lingerie, and sunglasses -- a joke that turns a little sour, I think, on reflection. Anatoly chickens out, but Vlad, taking advantage of the pandemonium, swallows down his nausea and fear, and defects. It turns out he's abandoned a one-ring circus for a three-ring circus. Capitalism offers Vlad a riot of superfluity. In a hotel, he sniffs at the scented toilet paper like an ecstatic bloodhound; later, faced with innumerable brands of coffee to choose from in a supermarket, he faints from indecision.

Mazursky and his collaborator on the screenplay, Leon Capetanos, prepared for the movie by interviewing émigrés, and long sections of the screenplay have the feeling of strung-together anecdotes. Many of the jokey anecdotes are very good, but I wish the filmmakers had sent Vlad reeling through American society in the course of a story and had then folded their satirical observations into it. The way it is now, the movie feels randomly inclusive and jerry-rigged. Vlad is made to race from one job to another; the black security guard (Cleavant Derricks) who protected him from the K.G.B. when he defected at Bloomingdale's becomes his best friend, a friendship that's made the occasion for some liberalizing (pleasant to hear, but not really to the point) about the condition of blacks in America; he falls in love with Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso), a Bloomingdale's salesgirl, and though Miss Alonso, a pop-singing star in Venezuela, is a lovely performer, her role is conceived as something of an object lesson. Along with dozens of weeping émigrés of every color and nationality, Lucia takes the oath of citizenship; the sequence raised a lump in my throat, but it also smacks of American self-congratulation.

In a word, Moscow on the Hudson should have been tougher. Scenes of affection and reconciliation come almost too easily to Mazursky, who is so eager to find the humanity in everyone that he sometimes flattens people out. (Evil and malice, after all, are human qualities too.) I find it hard to believe, for instance, that Vlad and his friends, each from a different immigrant group, would go dancing and hang out together. Isn't it more likely that each of the new arrivals would stick with his own tribe? Alas, the movie's family-of-man spirit feels like a crock. To achieve it, Mazursky willfully ignores some of the obvious divisions, such as the tribalization of commerce. It might have been funny, for instance, if Vlad had tried to open a produce stand or a coffee shop and had run into some indignant Koreans or Greeks. If Mazursky had confronted some of this, the movie's "I love America" sentiments would have earned our respect as well as our affection.

Yet Robin Williams's performance holds up. His Vlad comes alive in New York; the city's buzzing disorder makes him gregarious, hopeful, and ready to connect. And though Williams gives a performance of immense sweetness, he's not pulled down by the movie's sentimental tone. When Vlad gets the chance to play the sax with one of his favorite black jazz players, he doesn't make out too well. He's not good enough, and maybe he'll never be good enough. America the bountiful can't solve all his problems. What it can do is give him the opportunity to enjoy life. For a man who has always embraced misery, it's an immeasurable gift.

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