(director/writer: Stavros Kazantzidis; screenwriter: Allanah Zitserman; cinematographer: Justin Brickle; editor: Andrew MacNeil; cast: Hugo Weaving (Harvey), David Wenham (Ethan), Rebecca Frith (Miriam), Sacha Horler (Liza), Helen Dallimore (Alison), Natalia Novikova (Katia), Felicity Price (Phaedra); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Allanah Zitserman; Lot 47 Films; 2001-Australia)
“There’s a charm in these romantic developments that overcomes all its staleness.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A quirky minor romantic comedy that falls into traps of predictability and heavy doses of clichés, inexperienced directing, and also suffers because its male star and co-producer is the close to middle-aged Hugo Weaving (he played the drag queens in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” “The Matrix“). He is too much of a sad sack to have much appeal to the opposite sex, as he lacks the Hollywood good looks to pull off his role in a more certain manner. Yet the film was entertaining, and even though it played much like your typical screwball sitcom it nevertheless had a bit more spirit than most such ordinary films. The director and co-writer, Stavros Kazantzidis, has created a film that rips off the ideas of a host of other romantic comedies, so expect nothing new or daring here. If it was just the story one was after, then the film would be a total bust because the script lacked the element of surprise. But it instead offers a universally appealing story that is based on a genuinely real nice guy, something Weaving quite effectively conveys, who is having no luck in romance and then he is given a unique chance to find love with someone much different from him. He’s setup with her as a patsy and who in all probability would have never met her but for these tawdry circumstances. True. It’s the same old romantic comedy formula with only a slight variation, but there’s a charm in these romantic developments that overcomes all its staleness. It also can be said that with a more charismatic actor, someone in the Cary Grant category, the film could have been smashing. But since romantic comedies are not my favorite genre and given how difficult they are to execute, I was mildly pleased with Russian Doll and with how easily it rode through all its cute moments and that the characters were still left standing as likable human beings and not cartoon figures.
Harvey (Hugo Weaving) is a wannabe writer working as a Sydney private detective on adultery cases where he snoops with his video equipment on cheaters. He’s been going out with Allison (Dallimore) for the last four years or so, and they haven’t married because she told him that she wasn’t the marrying kind. On one of his cases he’s devastated to discover that the woman he has placed on a pedestal of virtue is carrying on a love affair with a married man, and so he sorrowfully ends the relationship. At the same time, Katia (Natalia Novikova), a sexy young Russian fireball, discovers the man she has been fixed up with via an international Internet matchmaking agency is dead. She is crying because she doesn’t want to go back to Russia, but is soon befriended on the street by a married stranger named Ethan who is offering her a hanky and soon his companionship.
Harvey is left in a self-pitying state, as he questions himself as if maybe it’s his own fault he has such bad luck and that others do not respect the values of monogamy. His best friends are Ethan (Wenham) and Miriam (Frith), a wealthy religious Jewish couple who are concerned that he’s unhappy and single. He’s envious of their ideal marriage and doesn’t feel he’s up to facing them over dinner and measuring his failure with their success. But he obediently attends and at dinner Miriam fixes the reluctant Harvey up on a blind date with someone like him who also lost her mate to infidelity, Phaedra (Price). After dinner, Ethan will corner Harvey in secret and drop the bombshell that he met a Russian cutie whom he’s been having an affair with for the last few months.
The problem for Ethan is that he doesn’t want to lose his loving wife, but he doesn’t want to give up the torrid affair with Katia. But Katia can’t stay much longer in Australia without getting married. So Ethan connives to pay Harvey enough money to marry Katia in a sham marriage to keep her in the country and by doing this good deed for his friend he’ll be able to quit the detective work and begin to work on that novel he’s always wanted to write.
There’s some cheap comedy drawn out by the running gag of Harvey telling everything to his shrink, who is never seen or heard on camera. At one point in the middle of the mess he’s in, Harvey drily tells the shrink he is starting to make good decisions in his life.
Miriam when she learns of Harvey’s upcoming marriage and that Katia is Jewish, starts planning a big Jewish wedding for them. One of the catches is that Harvey is a Catholic who considers himself to be an atheist–but he’s such an agreeable sort that he goes through with this Jewish wedding anyway because he said he would. Meanwhile Katia has moved into Harvey’s pad for a platonic relationship while waiting for the marriage date, but she finds that Ethan hardly has time to see her. She and Harvey discover that even though at first they didn’t hit it off, there grows a tender feeling between them. You don’t need Nostradamus to predict what develops from here on.
The title Russian doll refers not only to Katia but to those hollow Russian dolls that open up to reveal another doll. That’s the film’s metaphor for how this relationship story wants to be perceived in its serious moments, as it points out that when getting to know someone you must peel away layers to find out what’s really under the skin.
REVIEWED ON 1/12/2003 GRADE: C +