To get the mildly controversial opinion out of the way first: Robin Williams may have been a great comedian and comic actor, but he was an absolutely outstanding performer of drama. Even better, he excelled like few others when required to perform a combination of the two. Mass audiences may remember him for popular comedy or light-hearted hits including Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji, or Flubber, but I will always remember him more for the likes of Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam.
Moscow on the Hudson, directed in 1984 by Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills), is a great early example of the genre balance. It follows Vladimir Ivanoff (Williams), a Russian circus musician who – on a goodwill tour of the USA – impulsively chooses to defect and stay in New York. Elements of the film play out for laughs, but Vladimir’s dislocation and fears of Soviet reprisal deliver a constant dramatic bass line.
One would think a 1984 film about a Soviet defector would feel somewhat out of date, but in truth it feels broadly relevant today. Much of Mazursky’s focus is on the migrant experience rather than any kind of Soviet-American tensions. Additionally, his film broadly avoids any flag-waving patriotism or exaggerated depictions of American culture and society. Vladimir is confronted with both the good and bad aspects of the USA, and the position of being an outsider is also explored through his Italian love interest Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso) and best friend Lionel (Cleavant Derricks). These are all flawed but interesting people, each of them played very well.
A particular highlight of the film is Elya Baskin as Anatoly, a circus clown who boasts of his defection plans to Vladimir in Moscow, but who loses his nerve at the critical moment. It is well thought-out and rounded portrayal of a great character, and an early boost to the film’s energy and momentum. While Anatoly changes his mind, Vladimir spontaneously picks up the opportunity, leading to a fantastic – not to mention chaotic – chase sequence through expensive New York store Bloomingdales.
The film ultimately falls into two sections. Its first act, following Vladimir from Moscow to New York, is understandably packed with a nervous energy and a superb tension. The remainder of the film falls into a lower key: less stress, but more character development as Vladimir’s migrant experience begins. It would be easy to criticise the section for being too slow, or pedestrian. It is worth letting the slower pace allow the opportunity to simply enjoy the journey, which comes peppered with perfectly formed little vignettes and moments. One sees Vladimir fear he is being followed down the street. Another sees a group of Russians meeting in a diner. Little pleasant flashes of New York life are littered throughout. This seems a warm, thoroughly enjoyable, and unfairly forgotten little gem.