Paul Mazursky's tale of a Russian saxophone player, Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams), who defects in Bloomingdale's during a New York tour is one of the director's most accomplished and affecting works. As longtime fan Pauline Kael once observed, Mazursky is most inspired at his messiest -- when he casually strings observational scenes together, bound by a cohesive idea. Moscow on the Hudson embodied a stride forward for the director; Mazursky and co-screenwriter Leon Capetanos are able to maintain two narrative levels at once. On its surface, the story retains the haphazard, random, and slightly chaotic feel of everyday life in the States (like Mazursky's earlier pictures), but beneath it all, Mazursky and Capetanos meticulously structure the script, never once abandoning the path of watching Vlad become fully Americanized and relinquish his cultural identity. This idea of bittersweet assimilation not only anchors the picture, but sustains its sad-eyed seriocomic flavor. Mazursky and Capetanos resist the urge to overtly politicize; they suggest that the socioeconomic drawbacks of living on the far side of the Curtain (such as the thousand-person lineups for toilet paper, poorly sized shoes, etc.) may have threatened to make life miserable, but that the existence of family and friends -- and a Russian cultural identity -- partially redeemed it all, which explains why Vlad so misses his homeland even as he relishes political asylum. Most clever are the related parallels that Mazursky and Capetanos establish between Vlad's kinfolk and the African-American clan of Lionel (Cleavant Derricks), with whom he comes to reside (such as the similarities of their eccentric grandfathers) -- reminding us that family is family, regardless of cultural or political backdrop.
The supporting cast of immigrant characters, such as Maria Conchita Alonso as Vlad's Italian lover, Lucia; and the late Flying Nun vet Alejandro Rey as Argentinean immigration attorney Orlando Ramirez -- is uniformly superb. Most impressive, however, is Williams, who climbs so deeply into character that he loses all traces of himself. That he failed to earn an Oscar nomination for this picture is incredible. In interviews, he has vaguely referenced Mazursky's hyper-disciplined directorial style -- and one senses that this director, like George Roy Hill on the Garp set, refused to let Williams cut up his scenes with shtick. That is fortunate; the actor's performance suggests that his ability as a thespian, when it is properly disciplined and grounded in a worthy production, far outstrips that of his Hollywood contemporaries. Mazursky and Capetanos fill their script with hilarious, touching, insightful moments, many used to capture the confusion and insanity that an Eastern European would experience upon immigrating to the Big Apple.