An underrated Robin Williams movie

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MBDMOON EC021As brilliant as he could be in flat-out comedies, my favorite Robin Williams movies are the ones in which the Juilliard-trained actor is contained by a good role.

In the many tributes that have appeared in the past 24 hours, “Dead Poets Society” and “The World According to Garp” have been cited by fans as two of the star’s best vehicles, but few have mentioned his 1984 collaboration with writer-director Paul Mazursky on “Moscow on the Hudson.”

The film was a modest success at the box office and received a lot of play on the cable movie channels throughout the 1980s, but it seems to have fallen off most people’s radar, and that’s a shame.

Like the best work of Mazursky, “Moscow on the Hudson” is a bittersweet view of deeply conflicted characters. Williams plays a Russian musician who defects to the United States in one of it most overtly capitalist locations — the main floor of Bloomingdale’s department store on the East Side of Manhattan.

The musician struggles to survive in New York City but he falls in with a supportive community of fellow immigrants from a dizzying variety of countries. Maria Conchita Alonso plays his girlfriend and shares with Williams some genuinely steamy love scenes.moscow5

Because the star was locked into playing a very specific character, there was little room for the improv and stream of consciousness he tended to bring to other projects.

Mazursky only came to the idea of using Williams after he couldn’t get Dustin Hoffman or Dudley Moore for the project.

“There was a tendency in the early rehearsals for him to be a little shticky, but nothing much. It was quite easy to help get him on the path to the performance he gave. He deserves enormous credit for that character. Watching it now, I see that he understood it better than I thought he did at the time. He’s right in there,” Mazursky told interviewer Sam Wasson in the book, “Paul on Mazursky.”

The writer-director compared working with Williams on “Moscow on the Hudson” to his guiding Art Carney — best known for his TV comedy work — to an Oscar a decade earlier in “Harry & Tonto.”

“Robin is smart. He understood the pain,” Mazursky said, adding that a lot of the credit for the depth of the performance should go to David Gumberg, who taught Williams the Russian he would need for the early scenes in the film.

“When Robin worked with him for three months to learn the language, he must have learned a lot of good stuff along the way about how tough life was there. He is a very intelligent man, he’s a very humane man.”

“There were times when he might have been difficult to hold down because he’s such a genius. He could do a riff right now — about your shirt — that would have you on the floor.”

In his assessment of the film, Wasson writes, “Williams’ evocation of the innocuous is so complete, at times we forget we’re watching a titanic personality. Never once does he plead for our empathy, or defer to the cute, or take a shortcut through charm; rather, Williams seems uncharacteristically camera-blind, and as a result he allows us to see more of what’s inside than what’s out.”

If you haven’t seen “Moscow on the Hudson” check it out — the slightly oddball pairing of Mazursky and Williams produced career high work from both of them.

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Joe Meyers

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