House of Fools

on April 25, 2003 by Wade Major
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Purportedly based on real events surrounding the first Russian conflict in Chechnya back in 1996, “House of Fools” is a well-intentioned but agonizingly uneven exercise that finds director Andrei Konchalovsky more eager than ever to take risks, but somehow unable to make them pay off.

Events transpire almost entirely in and around a mental institution in the Russian region of Ingushetia, across the border from Chechnya where the war is raging just out of sight. After a half-hour of interminable loony bin clichés featuring a Felliniesque cast run painfully amok, Konchalovsky finally gets down to brass tacks and brings the war right through the front door of the hospital. In no time flat, the place is teeming with Chechen rebels, giving the inmates a welcome change of pace from their usual madcap routine. One in particular, an attractive young woman named Janna (Julia Vysotsky), takes a liking to one of the Chechens, but can't quite bring herself to make the full romantic commitment since she fancies herself betrothed to Canadian rock star Bryan Adams (who appears as himself in her private fantasy sequences).

Just as things appear to have settled down again, the Russian troops make their move, taking back the hospital and restoring order. But in a world as topsy-turvy as a mental institution, “order” can be a tricky proposition.

After a successful Hollywood career that included such hits as “Runaway Train” and “Tango & Cash,” Andrei Konchalovsky returned to Russia in 1994 to make “Ryaba My Chicken,” a French co-production that premiered at Cannes but was so poorly received it was never released in the U.S. Since that time he has concentrated mainly on directing television and opera. “House of Fools,” which he also wrote, proves that he still has his chops--the rugged, quasi-verité style is sometimes jarring but entirely suitable to the subject matter and highly effective during the combat sequences. Even the offbeat choice of having Bryan Adams appear as himself ultimately works, though the umpteen renditions of “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” end up being more annoying than endearing.

The problematic scenes are those involving the inmates, an assortment so motley and manic that they make “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” seem like “Ordinary People.” It helps that the military scenes--especially one in which rival Russian and Chechen captains realize that they were both veterans of the same operation in Afghanistan so many years earlier--feel credible. Here, Konchalovsky gets it right, tonally as well as thematically, hammering home points political and social without actually bringing out the hammer.

Unfortunately, things always roll back around to the inmates, contrasting scenes of honesty and credibility with miscalculated bathos. Only Janna stands out, thanks to Vysotsky's smart, subdued performance. She's a wonderful presence when on-screen, but not nearly strong enough to cover for the deficiencies of her costars or the imbalance in the script. Starring Julia Vysotsky, Eugeni Mironov, Sultan Islamov, Stanislav Varkki, Elena Fomina and Marina Politseimako. Directed and written by Andrei Konchalovsky. Produced by Andrei Konchalovsky and Felix Kleiman. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Russian-language; subtitled. Rated R for language, some violence and nudity. Running time: 107 min

Tags: tarring Julia Vysotsky, Eugeni Mironov, Sultan Islamov, Stanislav Varkki, Elena Fomina and Marina Politseimako. Directed and written by Andrei Konchalovsky, Produced by Andrei Konchalovsky and Felix Kleiman, Paramount, Drama
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