Russian Doll (2001)

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By Rachel Hyland

Only Human

“T

here are two kinds of people in the world,” says Harvey (Hugo Weaving), a man who should know. “The faithful and the unfaithful.” With this assessment, the main point of Russian Doll, the new Australian film by director Stavros Kazantzidis, is made clear. People cheat. A lot. And, really, is it entirely their fault? They’re only human, after all.

When Harvey, an accidental private investigator, discovers his longtime girlfriend (Helen Dallimore) is an enthusiastic participant in a client’s infidelity case, he begins to spiral into boring self-obsession, and to develop a drinking problem of which even his 1950s colleagues would have been proud. And when his heretofore happily married best friend Ethan (David Wenham) confesses that he is likewise finding solace outside of the conjugal bed, Harvey is similarly appalled.

But it is when this alleged best-friend convinces Harvey to promise marriage to his Russian-immigrant mistress Katia (Natalia Novikova), thus securing her residency in Australia, that things really become convoluted, though predictable. Before poor beset Harvey knows it, he’s got himself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking Russian doll. Temptress Katia, bosom well-displayed, moves into his spare room and soon captures his careworn heart. Ethan’s dutiful wife, Miriam (Rebecca Frith), volunteers to preside over the wedding arrangements and Harvey attracts the eye of Katia’s best friend Liza (Sacha Horler). All the while, people discuss, agonise over—and are filmed by a private investigator while having—sex.

So far, so formulaic romantic comedy. What makes Russian Doll different from its most obvious precursor, Green Card, and the myriad of other marry-in-haste-type screwball films, is that it’s also trying to be a morality play, a social commentary, and an arthouse-y alternative ensemble piece all at once. And then, in a truly bewildering ending, as inexplicably sudden to the viewer as it is unquestionably hoped for, it becomes a self-parody as well.

With enough charm to be endearing, enough idiosyncrasy to be interesting, and enough observance of established chick flick conventions to be a suitable First Date movie, Russian Doll also provides insight into the little-explored Russian and Jewish cultures in Australia, along with a certain bleak realism that is almost sombre—and therefore perceived to be worthy—in tone.

For example, one can’t help but feel that average-joe Harvey is more realistic as a PI than, say, Tom Selleck’s Magnum or David Boreanaz as Angel. Discounting Angel’s essential… well… vampire-ness, and Magnum’s red convertible, the cases that private investigators really have to take on—the taping of illicit sex, the hanging about sleazy hotels, the spying, snooping and peeping—stay as far outside the detectives’ purview as humanly (or inhumanly, in Angel’s case) possible. In truth, real PI Land is not like Poirot’s explorations of the dark underbelly of life, and the cases don’t usually involve luxurious country houses and medals from the Queen. Private investigating is down and dirty and depressing, and the disgusted reaction of a decent guy like Harvey to the rigours of his profession rings very true. Weaving is perfect here as self-deprecating, woebegone Harvey; Wenham is eerily convincing as engaging rogue Ethan; the rest of the cast members are more than serviceable in their various roles.

But it is Novikova’s portrayal of Katia, a woman you first pity, then despise, then quite fall for, that is the real redemption of this film. Her lustrous tresses and porcelain skin, the aplomb with which she carries off the appalling wardrobe, and the way in which she gently reveals the heart of gold under that hooker exterior, exemplify not only this film, but the Romantic Comedy genre that it desperately tries to avoid, and to which it cannot help but belong. Katia is the ultimate flawed heroine, the Woman With a Past who has been Done Wrong and who is willing to go to any lengths to secure a Happily Ever After. Harvey, meanwhile, is the personification of that much-abused Sensitive Guy, the Attractive, Intelligent and Insecure, actual, as-I-live-and-breathe gentleman (let’s just call him the Hugh Grant Model), who is Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, until a whirlwind of soft curves and seductive smiles waltzes into his heart to validate his life in his own eyes. In short, he’s a slightly shopworn version of the Impossible Dream.

He is also an essential element in any film that appeals to the world’s most demanding critics: the dewy-eyed, Sandra Bullock-movie-watching dreamers who expect their cinematic alter-egos to reach that unreachable star. Whatever else it thinks it is, Russian Doll is above all an enjoyably quirky romantic comedy, and a pleasant way to spend a little vicarious time in a foreign milieu. Generic as it is, it has tangible heart. This despite the cheaters at its center. For cheaters, ultimately, never prosper. Or, if they do, it’s because they’re men.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/russian-doll/