My main reason for checking this movie out was because of Robin Williams. After seeing him in so many great films like "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo" and watching his numerous hilarious talk show appearances, I've become even more curious about checking out the movies on his filmography that I have yet to see. Well, this is more than just a Robin Williams vehicle. Paul Mazursky cleverly combines comedy and drama, and expresses some good morals. He accurately portrays an immigrant's journey to America, and how he/she expects that America is a beautiful place where everyone can run free without any set limitations. It starts out as a fish-out-of-water comedy in which Russian immigrant Williams (who decides he wants to become an American citizen) explores the oddities of New York City and revels in its ambience, no matter how rough the neighborhoods are, no matter how many wackos are running around. Then he slowly learns that freedom has a price. America may be a free country, but that doesn't stop him from getting mugged and having his upstairs neighbors constantly complain about him playing his saxophone.
One thing that impressed me was rather than have a bunch of American actors don Russian accents, Mazursky actually has the actors speaking Russian to each other. Now, there are certain movies like "Schindler's List" and "K-19: The Widowmaker" in which we do see American actors speaking English and putting on foreign accents and still prove to be good movies, but it's always more engaging to see characters from a certain country speaking their native language. I mean, what if Russia were to make a movie set in America, where all the American characters were speaking Russian in American accents? How goofy would that look? I'm guessing that Williams was the only American actor in the cast, and the rest are actual Russians. I don't speak Russian, so I can't tell whether or not Williams was actually speaking Russian, but it looked convincing to me. But since mainstream American audiences have grown to hate reading subtitles, you probably won't see a movie like this released nationwide.
Robin Williams gives a terrific performance, totally disappearing into character. I was actually convinced he was a foreigner, as he speaks just like a Russian immigrant, in broken English, not articulating his words one bit. There was no sign of Robin Williams the Comedian in his character. Whenever he gets a laugh, he gets a laugh as Vladimir and not as Robin. Besides, this is one of his more serious roles and he never really plays it for laughs. Maria Conchita Alonso still sounds Cuban, as her Italian character, but she still gives a fine performance. Since I haven't seen her in any recent movies, it's nice to see her pretty face again. She was like the Salma Hayek of the 80's. Williams and Alonso have a good on-screen chemistry.
The friendship between Williams and his African-American friend, who goes as far as letting him move in with his family, is very touching. Working as a security guard at Bloomingdale's and seeing Williams wreaking havoc around the store, he starts out hating his guts. Before you know it, they're best buddies. The most touching scene is the one in which Williams leaves a jazz club, depressed after being told by a well-known jazz musician that he needs practice. He decides to throw his saxophone away and forget about being a musician altogether. His friend relates to his problem and gives him plenty of encouragement in pursuing his dream of playing the saxophone, as they get drunk and laugh their heads off. The movie stresses the outburst of immigrants in New York City, which is a melting pot society. Almost every character Williams comes in contact with is either a foreigner or a minority. Strange but undoubtedly true, if you were to examine the streets of New York. It's not unlikely to walk across a whole city block, where not one person speaks English.
The movie has no real plot structure, as it is mainly character-driven. The comedy is subtle, and arises naturally. My favorite quote from the film is when Williams says, "I bought my first pair of American shoes. They were made in Italy." That is a sample of the kind of humor in this film. I definitely suggest people check out this oldie-but-a-goodie.
My score: 7 (out of 10)