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It’s 1984: the USSR is on the verge of collapse, and so is Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich), a fictional standup who has enormous mainstream success but crumbles under bouts of insecurities. A failed novelist, Boris now tours the country with a banal routine about … a naughty monkey. The KGB approves and the audience roars with laughter, but Boris merely simmers with apathy.
Boris’s problems lie in his political spinelessness. His friends chastise him: Simon (Semyon Steinberg), an outspoken writer, mourns Boris’ idealistic literary past; Max (Yuri Kolokolnikov), an actor enamoured with American culture, concludes that the comedian should defect. Adding to the horrors, Boris’ teenage son writes anti-communist rock tunes in a bedroom plastered with posters of David Bowie and T Rex. This failure to communicate reaches a surreal peak when Boris is summoned to perform his routine to a Russian astronaut in space. In one long restless take, Boris paces around a sparsely furnished bunker and breathlessly tells the same old jokes, only for the astronaut to tell him to stop. He has had enough. Boris has, too.
This distinctive tendency to mix the weariness and the absurdities of life in the USSR makes The Humorist highly watchable. Agranovich’s performance is outstanding: his body language is subtle, but the actor has a magnetic way of sparking disillusionment or defiance in a simple look. Funnymen with a dark side can make for a great movie – think Lenny or Man on the Moon – but as a rule, the jokes must land; here they just aren’t funny enough. Even when Boris finally snaps and delivers scathingly uncensored jabs at Soviet officials in a bathhouse (another absurdist touch), it falls a bit flat. That’s a shame, as otherwise this is a intriguing time capsule of Soviet history.
Source: The Guardian
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