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A few weeks ago, I decided it would be fun to review the 1975 Russian classic The Irony of Fate. I assumed it was going to be read by 10…maybe 20 people. That was a miscalculation. I had no idea just how many Russians turned out for a 43 year old Rom Com. I wanted to spark a conversation, and I did. The only problem was that the conversation was largely in a language I do not speak. Eventually a popular Russian blog translated it, and then the Russian comments really came flying in.
Fortunately my wife does speaks Russian muy bien. As the article was shared over social media and other Russian oriented blogs, she made sure to follow along, and read what everybody had said about my thoughts regarding Galya and Zhenya and Nadya. The conversations were passionate, and the opinions were occasionally heated, but what was most surprising to me was that out of all of those thousands of people who had commented all around the internet, everybody rallied around one opinion: I absolutely nailed it. Wow. To tell you the truth, I was kind of worried that I’d gone out on a limb there a few times, but to read your notes I realized that my points were all valid, and every single joke landed. No easy feat, as comedy does not always make it through customs. But the verdict has been cast. I get Russian cinema. Who knew, am I right? But it piqued my curiosity. While I haven’t had as much exposure to Russian cinema as I would have liked, I’ve long admired the work of Russian actors. Thespians like Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen, John Malkovich, and of course Sean Connery. Several of the readers of that first article even asked me to review other Russian classics. The problem is, I can’t just manufacture takes. I’m not going to rely on schtick and pretend that I have issues with a beloved movie.
Well, fortunately, I didn’t have to gin up anything.
Now before we start, I want to make one thing clear. I got the sense that a few of you people think that I didn’t like The Irony of Fate. That’s not true. I liked it. I’d have to like it, at least a little. The damn thing was three hours long. I don’t voluntarily watch anything that I actively dislike for three hours. But sometimes I see things that look…off. Here I am giving it to A Christmas Story. I love A Christmas Story. And I liked Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears. I enjoyed the relaxed pace. I enjoyed the warmth to the audio. I liked seeing the Russia that Russians aspired for, and I can even understand how people who grew up there might have a nostalgia for that place.
That said…I do have a few notes.
I’m going to assume that this review does not go viral, so for the duration of this, I will be talking to the 20 Americans who are going to reading this, with the understanding that they have not watched the movie.
The movie starts in 1958 with three girls, all living in an all girl dormitory. First we have Katya Here she is, finding out that she just failed the entry exam to get into University.
She dreams of escaping the all girl dorm life through hard work. Noble. Respectable. This is a good girl. Unfortunately, being a hard worker with a nose to the grindstone attitude isn’t exactly cinematic. We’ll need a ludicrous dreamer.
Next we have her friend Lyudmila, who is pretty open about her desire to marry her way out of the dorms.
She’s ridiculous. In America we would see a lot of her constantly dragging her straight-woman friend into wild antics. Oh boy. Just try to imagine what fun they’re about to get into.
And then we have Antonia, who…oh my God, who even cares? Let’s be generous and call her the C-story. Anyway, here she is meeting her future in-laws.
Hey look, Antonia. They like you.
Now’s the chance to shine. Show them you’re marriage material. Just be normal and don’t do anything totally weird like…
…sniffing your boyfriend’s shoulder. That’s…that’s great, Antonia. I know there’s nothing my parent’s enjoyed more than an inability to sustain eye contact. Jesus fucking Christ. I get it. You’re nervous. But nobody’s putting you on the spot. You knew they were going to be here. Just smile. Maybe offer a polite handshake or do that cheek kissing deal you Europeans are so fond of. Compliment the mother. Pretend that there’s nothing weird about the dad wearing a suit and tie dacha in a forest clearing. All standard stuff that I’m sure went on in 1958. Anyway, let’s move on because they’re not important in the least.
Early in the movie Katya gets a call to house sit for a wealthy couple. This gives Luda a great idea. They’ll both move into the luxurious apartment. They’ll claim that they’re the daughters of a high society family. Surely by putting on airs, they’ll be able to land the man of their dreams. Stuffy Katya has the apartment, but Luda has the passion. I’m already chuckling at the possibilities.
Pretty soon the girls get down to work. They start calling men. It’s going down, at the shittiest most awkward gathering possible.
No music, no other girls. Just a bunch of dudes who don’t know each other, trying to act like everything is normal. Welcome to the meat market, boys. Please enjoy milling about and making awkward conversation while the girls get their stories straight in the kitchen. I guess the upcoming gang bang is only implied. Can’t be uncouth in front of the Bourgeoisie.
The party is a hit. Katya ends up with Yuri, a TV exec. Luda meets Sergei, a hockey player for the national team. Antonia isn’t there to bore anybody. There’s an old man there. You think that maybe he’ll be integral to the plot, but that never goes anywhere. All he does is bring some canned crab meat. Why is he there? What does he do? Would this movie be any different if he hadn’t been written into the plot? No. I think he’s just there to provide the crab meat. But old man or not, it’s a good night. The four that get to keep being in the movie agree to see each other. Eventually Katya meets Yuri’s mom. It goes fine, but Katya panics and realizes that they’ll all figure out that she’s about as high society as a piss soaked newspaper in the gutter. She’s going to put an end to this charade. Buuuut not before they have another date and hook up. Wikipedia says that Sergei forces himself on her. Maybe. She does say no before relenting, but I don’t know what the rules are in 1958 Soviet Russia. Maybe it’s cool. Maybe it’s bad.
Then, with no explanation, the girls bail on the house and move back to the dorm. Honestly, it feels like a scene is missing. It’s almost as if the movie is deliberately withholding information from the viewer. They go to Antonia’s wedding. Fun. We find out that Katya got knocked up. Uh oh. See? I knew they were holding something back. Let’s check in on Antonia and Nikolai on their big day.
Uh oh. What the hell happened to Antonia? Nikolai’s shoulder must smell like shit. Seriously, she went from mousy girl to shrieking bitch in no time. Marriage really does change people. Nikolai tries to make the best out of the situation.
Yo Nicky, maybe your wife just likes you as more of a friend.
Back to Katya. She’s still pregnant, and has ghosted Yuri. Yuri finds out that she’s a broke ass factory worker. His mom tells her she’s trash. Yadda, yadda, yadda, maybe they can still be friends, but she’s on her own with the baby. Luda asks her how she should be expected to raise a baby on her own.
Oh my God. That just got dark as all get out. What’s going to happen? Will she have an abortion? Will she give it up for adoption? She said there won’t be one, so it’s got to be one of the two, right? It’s pretty late for an abortion. I think they establish that she’s three months in, but it could probably be done if she needs it out in a pinch. My money is on adoption, which is still really difficult. Imagine going through pregnancy and then just giving your child away. Really tough stuff. So what’s it going to be? Abortion or adoption?
She kept it.
No real explanation given. There doesn’t appear to be any moment of reckoning. She just kept it. Maybe it was the hormones talking when she said there wouldn’t be a child. Granted, that was a pretty dramatic line, and I would expect for it to have some kind of payoff, but this movie likes nothing more than to subvert expectations. Maybe Katya is a big goddamn liar. Anyway, she keeps it and raises it into adulthood as a single mother? How does she manage to do that, you ask?
She just does, and you can go to hell for asking. We jump ahead in time some 15-18 or so years. Katya is fine. Probably worked hard, but she’s got a nice looking apartment. Still no man, but she’s doing alright.
Nothing in the first hour matters by the second hour. I’m serious. We had just set up stakes. There was real tension. Katya was a single mother in 50’s Russia who didn’t have a clue how she was going to get by. And now it’s fine. You might say, fine, the movie didn’t want to tell that story, but then why did they spend an hour setting it up? All of the problems that Katya was about to face are gone. She’s doing alright. Life isn’t perfect. She’s a married guy’s side piece, but considering where she started it sure does look like it all worked out for her. Now we have a different movie. That movie is fine, but we never finished the first movie.
Hey, what’s Luda up to, you might ask? She divorced and Sergei is a drunk, but it doesn’t matter, because she gets five more minutes of screen time for the next hour and half. She doesn’t get anything that she wanted. That’s what you get for having dreams, Luda.
This second half is really about Katya. Katya is being reminded constantly that she doesn’t have a man. She looks great, has a powerful job, a loving daughter. But still no man. We’ve kind of painted ourselves into a corner, here. There aren’t a ton of redemptive angles to advance her character arc. Soon she takes a train and meets Goga.
Goga can see right through Katya and her facade. He can tell that she’s single. He can tell that she’s searching. And he lays it all on the line for her. Tells her that he blew it in marriage. Tells her about how he likes to drink with his boys in the countryside. It sounds nice, but he starts to get a little off track. And then he just starts rambling.
Buddy, where are you going with this? This is your closer? You just start rambling on about your friends and their various ailments? What the hell are you doing? Are you going to start going on about your coworker’s car problems? No woman in history has ever wanted to hear about a stranger’s friend’s ulcer. I get the sense that whoever wrote this story just likes to jam out on dialogue and see what happens. And then keeps everything in the script.
Later we see Katya shopping at the grocery story. This might be only something that I notice, but it’s driving me insane, and I need to talk about it. There’s no dialogue. Nothing of note happens. It’s just a silent 25 second scene. She puts some jars of assorted stuff into her cart. Somebody parks a cart filled with various food items, and a few people flock over grab whatever I assume is on sale. Katya makes sure to get one for herself. And then she continues on, putting more jars into her cart. Apparently she needed a lot of things in this aisle. And that’s the scene. It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t do anything. You might ask, why am I focusing on this one scene? But why does it exist? It aspires to nothing. It achieves nothing. It’s just 25 seconds of what appears to be stock footage. It’s like they shot it for something else and then the director said, “Well, we’ve gotta use that.” Later on we see her run into Goga, while she’s holding the grocery bags. But I don’t need to actually see her go grocery shopping. Even if you felt I needed to know that she had been grocery shopping, you could have just showed me the grocery bags and I would have inferred that she was running errands. Why is this movie showing me 25 seconds of B-Roll? We spend maybe three minutes on the date where she ends up getting pregnant. We don’t even see the moment where she realizes that she’s pregnant and her life is going to change forever. But we do a really deep dive into an uneventful day that the Стоп & Магазин? Go to that second video that I’ve posted. The scene starts at the 33:18 mark. Watch it for yourself. Tell me I’m crazy and the movie wouldn’t make sense without those 25 seconds the editor stole from your day. Rant over.
Before we continue, I want to reiterate: I enjoyed this movie. I understand my tone has been pretty negative up to this point. And it’s going to get a little more negative, because I have to talk about our friend from the train, Goga.
Goga starts off as a really cool movie character. He’s an antihero. A rogue. He’s got a little bit of Han Solo with his cocksure swagger, and yet a healthy dose of Harvey Pekar’s cantankerousness. He’s funny. He’s dry. And he gives less of a fuck than a nihilist on a fistful of Prozac. This movie is good, but what would have made it better would have been to get to the most interesting character sometime before the 90 minute mark.
But Goga also exhibits a lot of personality traits found in the abusive men of a Lifetime Original. He finds Katya a day after their ride on the train. And by finding her, I mean he waits outside of her building for two hours until she comes home.
He meets her daughter and cooks dinner, and then promptly tells everybody what’s for dessert.
Then they go to a field on a cold day to hang out and listen to a little acoustic guitar. One of his boys sings his praises as one of the greatest tool and die makers in the biz. He tells Katya’s daughter that Goga has got golden hands. That’s a bit much, but that’s what the great hype men do. Hey, is this the guy with the ulcer? He seems nice. But when they leave Goga reveals that he could never be with a woman who makes more money than he does. But not to worry. He makes more money than she does. He seems pretty confident.
Later, Katya’s daughter’s boyfriend is threatened by some street toughs, and Goga beats their ass. Yeah! Now that’s what this movie was missing. Street vengeance. Hit them with the gold hands, Goga. Goga rules. Katya, who has somehow been reduced to a secondary character by this point tells him “Please don’t. Seriously, don’t do that anymore. I don’t like it.” And he says, “Yeah, but I’m going to, and what’s more, if you ever tell me what to do I am out of your life. Forever.” Again, we’re one drunken slap away from this being a Lifetime Original. I get that Russia was a male dominated culture through much of the 20th century, as was America, but you aren’t giving me a lot of room to side with Goga here.
Katya’s baby daddy, Yuri shows up. But worse than that, as Yuri talks, he reveals that Katya is a director. Did you hear that, Goga? A director. As in she can direct his ass to her bank statement so that she can see all the rubles she makes. She could probably buy and sell his ass, golden hands be damned. Goga realizes that he just might not make more money than Katya and makes good on his previous threats to bounce. He’s gone.
Eight days pass. Nobody’s heard from Goga. Luda and Antonia offer to help. Hey, how are they doing, anyway? Who. Fucking. Cares. But Antonia’s husband Nikolai is on the case. He doesn’t know if Goga is good or bad news. Hell, he hasn’t even seen the bastard. But Goddamn it, the man has had nothing to do in this entire movie and now is his chance. He tracks his ass down like a friggin’ bloodhound. Goga, it turns out, is holed up in a single room.
Hey, this place is a goddamn dive. Nice touch with the newspaper curtains. Or…maybe it’s fine. I don’t know. Katya’s a big success working as a director, and she’s sleeping on a couch bed in her own living room every night, so who’s to say what success even looks like in 1970’s Russia? Not me, a guy who may or may not be a Russian just pretending to be a dumb American (Discuss among yourselves in the comments section, wherever this gets shared). But for real, Goga, this place is a hole. How were you ever under the impression that you made more money than Katya? You’ve seen her place. You cannot have been blindsided. Meanwhile Nikolai has a job to do. He’s got to convince Goga to go back to Katya. They proceed to get stone cold drunk. I’m talking “strip down to your wifebeater or robe and slap the table with a fish” drunk.
And I guess that works. Goga puts on a suit, escorts Nikolai to Katya and the gang, and they all live happily ever after.
So what exactly is the message of this movie?
Seriously. What is it? Katya makes a mistake in 1958 and gets pregnant, but we never see her live with the repercussions. Not really. We’re made to think that her life is about to become hell, but the next time we see her, she’s fine. There isn’t a redemptive arc. She seems content. And then she meets Goga, who I think the movie is telling us is the perfect man. Let’s be honest, Goga is a loser. Not because he makes less money than Katya, but because he resents her for it. He says it’s because she lied about it, but come on, man. You’ve seen her place. You’ve seen your place. Fuck off. You knew she made more money than you did, you horse’s ass. I get it. Men were told that they have to be the breadwinner in the household in order to carry any respect. That was true in America as well. But if you’re going to sing that tune, either give him a redemptive arc where he somehow ends up making more money than her, or just paint him as the loser. Don’t call him the perfect man for leaving without talking to her like an adult, only to leave her begging so hard that her friends have to convince him to return on her behalf.
Noooo. No he isn’t, Katya. He has rage issues. Why do you think he’s so perfect? Because some guy said he’s got golden hands? Who the fuck was that guy? You don’t know him. You barely know Goga, and he’s been throwing red flags into the air like confetti.
If you want to be the bread winner so goddamn badly, find a way to make more money. Don’t just passive aggressively disappear, asshole. He’s not a hero for coming back. He’s a manipulative dick. And by all accounts, I think I’m supposed to be happy for her. I don’t think it’s that happy of an ending. Why are you people happy for her right now?
I guess I’m 0-2 with these love stories.