The Irony of Fate 2  by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The original Irony of Fate is a 1975 Russian film that is considered a Soviet-era cultural treasure. It is adored by generations of Russians with the same kind of affection Americans have for It's A Wonderful Life. Its story takes place on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, and it was first broadcast on television in two parts, on New Year's Eve of 1975 and New Year's Day of 1976. The repeat broadcasts are now an annual Russian tradition at that time of year. It also had a successful theatrical release, so it has probably been seen by more Russians than any other Russian film, perhaps more than any film of any origin.

It is not a typical film. For one thing, it's a three-hour romantic comedy. It is that long not because it is especially plot-heavy, but because it gets stretched out by songs - beautiful, bittersweet songs based on classic Russian poetry, generally sharing the basic theme of loss, and often stressing that we always seem to spend time with the wrong people, whether they are friends or lovers, while we miss out on the right people or watch them walk away. (Yes, the songs are melancholy. Would you expect happy songs in a Soviet romantic comedy?) The songs are usually worked into the fabric of the film with some clumsy device like, "We can eat/shop/whatever in a minute, but before we do, you know I really love it when you sing."

I'm not Russian myself, so I don't relate to the film as a cultural touchstone. I find it clunky, syrupy, artificially plotted, and old-fashioned, and I find many characters rather difficult to relate to as real people. On the other hand, I am a Russophile with a Russian family and at least some small grasp of their incredibly complex language, so there are many things about the film I admire and even love:

* For one thing, there are the songs, which consist of great poems set to music especially for this film, Like many real Russians, I know many of the film's songs by heart, and get chills at certain lines. They are mostly performed by a very young Sergei Nikitin. Although he was not well known at the time of his performance in this film, Sergei and his wife Tatiana are now great international treasures, two PhD's in Physics who have spent the latter part of their lives bringing Russian literature and folklore to life in ballads, most often combining Nikitin's music with the words of leading poets. (Note: Nikitin was the performer in this film, not the composer, but his own songs are just as good or better. I'm a huge fan.).

* For another, there is the film's simple charm. Like It's A Wonderful Life, it "sells" its corny premise with genuine enthusiasm for its message. It may be naive and amateurish at times, but it converts those attributes into gold with good-humored sincerity.


That finally brings us to Irony of Fate 2, which was made some thirty years after the original, and which, in my opinion, got just about everything wrong.

Let's start with its lack of sincerity. While the original was created solely to entertain, amuse and move audiences, the new film is basically a long commercial. It places more products, and in more obvious ways, than any film I have ever seen.

And then there's the lack of charm. The original film was almost completely lacking in any form of directorial technique that you would notice. It's about as un-hip as any film you'll ever see. It was about people and their feelings. That's part of what made it so beloved. In contrast, the new film shows off some dazzling techniques. It is awash with swirling colors, artistic close-ups of small objects, special effects, bullet time, speed-ups and slow-downs, pulsating music, and just about every other form of excess that the modern cinema bathes in regularly. Those sorts of things have their place in movies, and the director of this film, Timur Bekmambetov, is a very imaginative and hip dude who has used those same techniques in his other films to excellent effect.  I really enjoyed his next film, Wanted, the English-language thriller with Angelina Jolie and James McEvoy. Irony 2 is also slick, but all of those fancy-ass pyrotechnics just don't belong here, where they can frequently and intrusively take the viewer out of the story. The mission of this film should be to get the audience to touch the characters' hearts, not to admire the director's techniques.

Oh, yeah, the songs. I mentioned those incredible songs from the first film, based upon some of the great Russian poems, tunes that many Russians of all ages know by heart as well as Jimmy Buffett fans can ... er ... parrot his classics? The sequel's creators decided that they were too hip and modern for any of that boring, stodgy, old-fashioned crap.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the new film not only screwed up its own running time, but it somehow actually managed to screw up the original as well! The first film had managed to take the two protagonists away from the people with whom they were mismatched, thus allowing them to pair up in a final embrace that promised them a better future. It was a rare Russian classic with a happy ending, and it filled viewers with a glimmer of hope that each may find his or her kindred soul. The new film, coming from a new, cynical Russia, got right to the point by saying "Oh, that original ending was a romantic pipe dream. Those two both went back to the people they were not right for, married them, and had children by them." And to make bad matters even worse, the new script left us in the dark about the details of how all that happened! Hell, those details alone would have been a better movie than this one.


The Soviet functions of New Year are being reverted back to Christmas in re-Christianized Russia, so in that spirit I offer my comment on this film:

"Bah, humbug!"

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