Diminutive Russian peasant Boris is dragged, much against his better judgement, into the throes of history. With his none-too-committed lady-love Sonja by his side (some of the time) he offered the opportunity to assassinate the great but not-so-tall invader Napoleon Bonaparte. However, his existential angst about the nature of love and death may get in the way.
One of Woody Allen’s few excursions out of Manhattan, but definitely a fully paid up member of the Early Funny Ones club, this magnificent, often anarchic pastiche of Russian literature’s portentous habits with a side order in Bergmanesque death wallowing actually finds Allen at his silliest. Which also means it is extraordinarily clever silliness, with designs deliberately stolen from Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers. It is film that explores comedy’s infinite variety via the medium of the existential philosophy of those big Russian sagas slumped in history like sulking teenagers.
Slapstick, mime, and knockabout comedy spill about the chaotic story of a wimp intellectual having to play hero, alongside divine wordplay and clever-clever musing (catch the speech entirely made of Dostoyevsky book titles). Allen does his Allen thing, that fumbling if randy neurotic intellectual, only this time stuck out of time in rural Russia at the time of the Napoleonic invasion. In short, and it had to be, he’s cross-the-road-to-have-a-gander hilarious. Diane Keaton is nearly better as the terrible love of Boris’ idiotic life, who marries him as a last resort and keeps drifting into indecipherable philosophical spiel: “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving…”
Fans of his caustic views on real relationships will find none of such honesty hereabouts, this is borderline spoof, but infinitely more informed than the work of Mel Brooks. You get Woody fired out of a cannon, and jokes so good you weep to be in possession of such divine wit: “And so I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Actually, make that, ‘I run through the valley of the shadow of death’ — in order to get OUT of the valley of the shadow of death more quickly, you see.’”
One of the 'early funny ones' this has a high gag count and is a favourite of most Woody fans.