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When we lost Robin Williams, we had to take a breath for a moment and assess what was now missing from our lives the way we might, say, after a house fire. The first thing that comes to mind is the improvisational fury, that lava-like torrent of comedic genius that has been spewing forth consistently since most of us have been ingesting pop culture. Let’s face it: Robin Williams’ energy and mental facility—displayed in sitcoms, the Carson show, Disney cartoons, or in the elevator at a junket hotel—have been maybe the most reliable entertainment commodities of our lifetime. It’s been something we could bank on through good movies and bad, something to wonder at even on days when we weren’t exactly in the mood for it.
But the late actor and comedian had an equal and much quieter gift that is harder to quantify and even more difficult to say goodbye to: an aching humanity and ability to make real the extreme or otherworldly truthful. Both qualities are on loving display in his fourth film since arriving from Ork, the 1984 comic drama Moscow on the Hudson, cowritten and directed by the late Paul Mazursky.
In a stunt that probably shouldn’t have worked as well as it ultimately does, Williams learns Russian and adopts a more-studied version of Andy Kaufman’s foreign man voice to play Vladimir, a saxophonist working for the Moscow circus who defects on the selling floor of Bloomingdale’s during a visit to NYC. He discovers a city of mishmashes and outsiders: an Alabama-born Bloomie’s security guard who openheartedly takes him in; his Cuban immigration attorney; an Italian perfume girl, played by Maria Conchita Alonso in her Hollywood debut.
Despite the character constraints, Williams does some of his most touchingly honest work in his five-decade career here. He is especially good opposite Alonso: the love scenes between these two very real-looking people are a powerful reminder that Hollywood once believed truthful representation and sexiness could happily co-exist. It is no surprise that Mazursky, one of Hollywood’s great and most underappreciated comic humanists, is a touchstone for modern independent filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and Mark Duplass.
In scenes like that one, Mazursky extracts a sweetness from Williams, that desire to connect and understand, which was always at the baseline of even his most manic stand-up riffs. I can say from personal experience that quality was present even in an environment as inhumane as a Hollywood junket, where he spoke from the heart about recovery or lost friends like John Belushi. In the end—and it is still difficult to grasp that we are at the end—it is that humanity which made the flights of inspired silliness all the more breathtaking.