Take a Drink: for damn silliness
Take a Drink: for music
Take a Drink: whenever soldiers do something unsoldierly
Take a Drink: for each new story of Ormond’s husband’s death
Take a Drink: for weird math noises
Take a Drink: “Look, gypsies!”
Do a Shot: whenever Julia Ormond screams
By: Henry J. Fromage (Six Pack) –
I live in Russia right now, which, with the state of the ruble and the doldrums of winter, is going about as well as you’d expect. Thankfully a ray of sunshine shined on my life this week- the glorious, unqualified clusterfuck that is Russia’s own The Barber of Siberia.
This tells the wishfully epic tale of dirty American thief of innocence Julia Ormond, who seduces the naive young soldier Oleg Menshikov. Their… romance, I guess you’d call it, is threatened by her intentions of tricking an influential Russian general with her American feminine wiles into sponsoring her partner’s steampunky tree-cutting machine which he plans to denude Siberia of trees with, named the Barber of Sibera, because metaphors.
This is Menshikov, who plays not one, but two 20 year olds… Seriously.
Director Nikita Mikhalkov has been in the Oscar Foreign Language film conversation several times, which might be thanks somewhat to his chumminess with the long-current Russian administration. However, he clearly has some technical chops, and stages several nice setpieces (the rebel attack, the winter festival fistfight). DP Pavel Lebeshev also contributed quite a few beautiful shots. It’s a very polished-looking film, which makes everything else about it so much more perplexing.
Also, Menshikov looks rather like Christoph Waltz, and even has a hint of his wry charisma, even if he is a 40 year old playing a 20 year old like a 10 year old here.
As you can guess from the synopsis, the plot (and tinkly 1980s soap opera music, and histrionic acting…) is pure melodrama. It even follows romcom conventions- there’s the bad boy and the unspoiled innocent drawn together by mutual passion, there’s a misunderstanding by the innocent that threatens the relationship because people can’t just sit down and fucking talk, the innocent exacerbates things with an act of passionate anger, like beating an old man in the face with a stick… oh yeah, the innocent here is the man, Menshikov.
AKA The 40 Year Old Virgin.
If this was straight melodrama, I could understand how some folks would be taken in by it. However, while on paper it’s melodrama, in execution it’s pure slapstick. It’s like Mikhalkov tried to recreate Life is Beautiful, with its sublime mixture of comedy, romance, and tragedy, from an online recipe, but didn’t notice all the ingredients were metric. All of those ingredients, and hence the balance, are way the fuck off, and the taste is rancid.
To be expected whenever you add a teaspoon of Wild Wild West
The humor often dips even blow the usual physical clowning and people making weird mouth noises. There’s fat jokes, fart jokes, animal cruelty jokes… forget Roberto Benigni, this is barely cutting the Adam Sandler grade.
Many of the Russian actors are over the top, but they’ve got nothing on Richard Harris and Julia Ormond. You get the distinct idea that the director has no idea whether the English-language performances are good or not, and certainly not the dialogue delivery. Harris is a walking caricature, and Ormond gives a masterclass in what not to do. She’s so clearly self-conscious that you don’t believe her for a minute, and wavers from high camp to soap opera full… of, DRAmatic…. pauses.
It’s like a Razzie Reel
If all of this pratfalling and tearjerking was earnest, it wouldn’t trip my bullshit sensors so severely. Instead, the English language actors and orientation of the film around a white Western outsider is what’s really absurd. Sometimes it plays like a hammy tourism video, and others a collection of offensive Russian stereotypes. Clearly this was meant for an outside audience, which is insulting on like ten levels. You’d never guess the director was Russian.
Nikita Mikhalkov and Oleg Menshikov clearly thought they were making their own Life is Beautiful. All this tonally bizarre, catastrophic misfire proves is how damn difficult it is to walk the line between slapstick and melodrama, and how incredible an achievement Life is Beautiful was.