Most people my age got introduced to Robin Williams’ real acting chops in the late-90s with Good Will Hunting.
One could be forgiven for believing that this was his first foray into serious drama, since most of his other hit movies during that same time period were broad comedies filled with rapid fire jokes, improvised lines, and tons of celebrity impressions (Aladdin, Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook).
However, little did we know that Williams had been dedicated to taking on more complex projects a full decade before, with a slew of juicy roles that straddled the line between comedy and drama and netted him a handful of Oscar nominations (Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam).
While I’m certainly not an expert on Williams’ filmography throughout the 1980s, I’m confident in saying that Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, released in 1984, is a precursor to the actor’s future success, since he carries the entire movie on his back with a sweet, funny and understated performance.
In the film, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian saxophone player who decides to defect to the United States once the circus that employs him makes a trip to New York City. From there, we follow Vladimir’s ups and downs as he navigates the country’s immigration system and does his best to adjust to the American way of life.
Obviously, the biggest highlight here is Williams, who makes the wise decision to avoid adopting a cartoonish Russian accent and ridiculously stilted English speaking pattern to try and generate laughs from the audience.
Instead, his character shines through his empathy, work ethic and good-hearted nature, which comes across as being much more authentic and funny than some kind of broad caricature.
While a lot of the credit for this dynamic goes towards Mazursky’s script, Williams also needs to be commended for doing his homework.
Reportedly, the actor spent about a year learning the language and other Soviet customs before principal photography began, which is a hell of a lot more preparation than some other Hollywood stars have undertaken for playing Russians in the past.
But Williams’ performance isn’t the only thing that turns Moscow on the Hudson into a real hidden gem.
On top of featuring a thoroughly likable cast who have great comedic chemistry, the people behind the camera should be given a lot of credit for pulling the film’s different elements together into a cohesive whole.
For example, seasoned director of photography Donald McAlpine does a brilliant job of bringing New York City to life on screen. Not only does he shoot the city’s famous landmarks in a way that perfectly mimics the wide-eyed wonder that a newcomer like Vladimir would feel, but his cinematography also has the added affect of making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never visited.
Composer David McHugh also makes a big impression by choosing just the right song or musical sting at just the right moment. Probably one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie is Vladimir’s decision to defect in a large US department store, where Soviet marching music plays overtop of scenes of communist circus performers and their KGB handlers shopping for clothes and jewelry.
But by far the biggest star of this whole enterprise is the script, which really does a great job of crafting a “rah, rah” patriotic American film without veering off into the territory of outright propaganda, like some other 1980s properties I could name ….
With that being said, Moscow on the Hudson still holds the United States in very high regard, portraying it as a global paragon of virtue and morality, especially when compared to the Soviet Union.
But rather than demonstrating the US’s outright superiority through more regressive characteristics like military might or isolationist policies, Mazursky emphasizes that this country is great because of its multiculturalism and welcoming attitude towards immigrants.
Virtually all of the film’s supporting characters are immigrants, whose kindness and strength come from their ability to adapt to their adopted homeland.
Furthermore, most of the film’s second half takes place inside of distinctly ethnic clubs, grocery stores and restaurants, which communicates the idea that American culture is perpetuated through these sorts of institutions.
As a character, Vladimir even embodies this philosophy through his love of playing the saxophone, since jazz is a uniquely American creation.
Some might feel that this ”touchy-feely” approach robs of the film of any tactile conflict, and what conflict exists is rather forced and manufactured, especially after the KGB agents largely leave the picture following Act One.
And I’ll be the first one to admit that this movie is not without its cheesy moments, especially one scene near the end of the film where the characters literally recite passages from the Declaration of Independence out of nowhere.
But given how toxic and divisive the US political climate is right now, Moscow on the Hudson is a breath of fresh air.
And at the end of the day, I’m sure an actor like Williams, who spent his whole career trying to make people laugh, would be happy to know that one of his earlier films still serves as a heart-warming reminder of how the American experiment can be used to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.
Corner store companion:
Werther’s Original Caramel Hard Candies (because it’s still remarkably sweet, despite how long it’s been in circulation).
-Release date: April 6, 1984.
-Budget: $13 million (estimated)
-Box office gross: $25.1 million.
-Unexpected cameo: Comedian Yakov Smirnoff makes a brief appearance as “Lev,” one of Vladimir’s new friends in New York who is also an aspiring celestial mechanic and astrophysicist.
-On top of learning to speak fluent Russian, Williams also spent months studying how to play the saxophone for this role. According to the actor’s music teacher, Williams learned in two months what usually takes normal people two years to master.
-For a while, director Paul Mazursky tried to get a sequel called Moscow on the Rocks made, although it never came to fruition. The plot of this follow-up film would have followed Vladimir, now a cutthroat New York City businessman, as he travels back to his homeland for his sister’s wedding and falls in love with a Russian doctor.
-The portions of the film that are set in Moscow were actually shot at Bavaria Studios in Munich, Germany.
-Musical highlight: “Freedom” by Chaka Khan (plays over the end credits).