Vanya on 42nd Street Reviews
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn combined with director Louis Malle to create one of the great talk-only films, My Dinner with Andre, and now they add David Mamet translating Anton Chekhov to the mix, and the result is just as compelling. By itself, Vanya is a great character drama, and what Malle and company show is that great material requires great actors, not necessarily beautiful scenery. You probably wouldn't cast impish Wallace Shawn in the main role of Vanya opposite the younger and "beautiful" Jullianne Moore, but it works because Shawn's talent as an actor goes beyond his looks. The rest of the actors are equally good, including Moore, whose work usually fails to compel me.
Overall, this is a great introduction to one of Russia's greatest writers.
Vanya On 42nd Street stars Wallace Shawn as the titular character. This is one of the very few serious (or even semi-serious) roles I've ever seen him in. And, I must say, he does a fantastic job. I cannot complain about his performance at all. I really wish this guy was doing more drama, actually. To be fair, I can see him being irritating to some people, but he is genuinely a very good actor. The audience can really get a sense of the inner struggles Vanya is going through in each scene and they can tell exactly the kinds of relationships that he has with each member of his family.
All in all, this is just an eloquently done film. That being said, I did have some problems with it. The biggest issue is that a lot of people are not going to be in love with this film solely because it is Checkov. The language isn't easy and the director doesn't make the story "alive" enough to hold the attention of some of the people I saw this with. People are either going to be really turned on and engaged with this story, or they're going to hate it. The reason for that distinction lies mostly with the nature of Checkov itself. There are a lot of relationships always going on and molding and the characters can be hard to keep track of if the audience isn't careful. And besides that, the plot itself unfolds in a very different way than a modern audience will be use to. Checkov believed that real life happened in small conversations and small decisions, so there's never any huge revelation or anything like that. The play's actions fold out in very much the same ways they would in life, and people are either going to love it or hate it. I really enjoyed that, especially now that I've had some time apart from the story.
Checkov works best for the older generations. They're the ones who seem to find the most connections to this work. And it sucks that this film has such a limited audience, but it is the way it is. So I would definitely not recommend this picture to my younger readers. But the older audiences--even twenties and up--ought to find this story quite meaningful.
Overall, it's a well-directed and well-acted picture. Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore are great together and the director really handles the space well. Sometimes I forgot that this whole story is actually a play within a play. I forget that these are actors going through a routine rehearsal of the production. I just get caught up and lost in the story that takes place. It is a worthy film adaption of the play if the audience can really take it in. But it's not the easiest.
Every time someone kisses Wallace Shawn on the top of his head in this, I think they're doing it for luck, like rubbing the tummy of a Buddha. Every time he goes to kiss Julianne Moore, I think how creepy I would find it to be kissed by Wallace Shawn. Yuck!
I [i]like[/i] Wallace Shawn, of course. I think he does an outstanding job in this movie, and now I want even more to see [i]My Dinner With Andre[/i], but he's still, well, Vizzini. It doesn't matter that he's got, like, 100 things on his IMDB filmography. In my head, he's saying, "Inconceivable!"
I've never read Chekhov. I've meant to, gods know, but I haven't. As I've mentioned, my list of books to read never gets shorter, no matter how much I read. In fact, it's actually getting longer; I can't keep up. (Though I may, one of these days when I haven't watched a movie, do an entry on books I recommend that [i]haven't[/i] been made into movies.) I'll probably read [i]Uncle Vanya[/i] first. But until then, my primary mental association with Chekhov is [i]The Fifth Elephant[/i], where Ambassador Vimes runs full tilt into a farm owned by three Chekhovian characters; they give him the trousers that are the title of tonight's entry.
My personal theory of Russian literature is that Russian winters are long; they write long, intense works of literature and read long, intense works of literature. Everything I've read on the subject indicates that Chekhov fits squarely into this pattern.
Interestingly, two of the women in this movie have also appeared in films featuring the character of Hannibal Lecter. Julianne Moore, who does a wonderful turn here as Yelena, was Clarice in [i]Hannibal[/i], and Brooke Smith--the intense Sonya--was Catherine Martin, Buffalo Bill's attempted final victim in [i]Silence of the Lambs[/i]. It doesn't mean anything, of course; it's merely one of the odder quirks of casting.
Oh, someone tried to post three comments today that were strings of URL code that don't seem to show anything when posted. Anyone know what's up with that?