A well-conceived film with an overall enjoyable cast. The best performance belongs to Brooke Smith (kidnappee in Silence of the Lambs) who perfectly portrays the heartbreaking experience of a "plain" woman with a love unrequited. Wallace Shawn is also commendable, and the character roles of Nanny and Waffles are played superbly. However, I give this movie 4 rather than 5 stars chiefly because I was not thrilled with the performances of Julianne Moore and Larry Pine. Moore doesn't quite exude/possess enough charm and attraction to match that of her character who supposedly turns the existence of those around her upside down. And her repeated laughs seemed unnatural. Pine's Dr. Astrov likewise failed to invoke the reverence that the female characters attribute to him. He was a bit too "Bogart" and dated. The film does have enough to stand up to repeated viewings.
This film removes the old stigma surrounding Chekhov and allows audiences of all ages and backgrounds to access the brilliance, pain, laughter, and humanity of his work. It may even motivate some viewers to seek out more of his writings. The direction by Louis Maller, the translation by David Mamet and all of the performances are the most gripping, realistic, entrancing I've ever seen of "Uncle Vanya". It shows what can be achieved with no set, no costumes, just great actors, with a great script, doing what they do best. SEE THIS FILM!
I remembered loving this "small" film when I saw it in the theater, so I knew I'd be happy with the DVD, whether it had any extras or not (it doesn't). Although Julianne Moore has made it big since making Uncle Vanya ("Boogie Nights," "Nine Months," "The End of the Affair"), and her lovely face dominates the DVD cover, "Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street" is truly ensemble acting at its best. Wallace Shawn as the title character does a powerful job of holding the viewer's interest, even though his Vanya is riddled with smugness, envy, self-pity, and lethargy. There are things about his performance that make you wonder if Louis Malle wasn't thinking of "Uncle Vanya" as a sequel to "My Dinner with Andre" (especially since Andre Gregory plays the director who has gathered his troupe of actors to rehearse Uncle Vanya in the falling down New Amsterdam Theater in New York City). In both movies, Shawn plays a man facing a mid-life crises, plagued with self-doubt and floundering around, looking for reasons to go on. What struck me on my recent viewing of the film was how timeless Checkhov's story really is. Like Jane Austen, he has a great ability to find the universal in the pettiness of highly-controlled domestic life. In comparing Mamet's rendering with Paul Schmidt's excellent recent translation, it seems Mamet did a good job of crafting speakable lines. He modernized the play without wrenching it from its original time or setting. Since the performance we see is a final run-through, not a dress rehearsal, we receive no visual clues as to when the play within the movie actually begins. Malle's light hand in this regard only reinforces the dubiousness of the distinction between theater/art and reality (a much discussed subject in "My Dinner with Andre"). The decision to film "Uncle Vanya" in the decaying New Amsterdam Theater was an inspired one. When Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), the play's most forward-looking character, bemoans the cultural and spiritual devastation caused by deforestation and human indifference to the environment, one can't help but think of the plight of 42nd Street itself. The New Amsterdam's resurrection--thanks to Disney dollars--as the current home of "The Lion King" is not without it's ironies. As all of the characters in "Uncle Vanya" are painfully aware, our futures are always purchased at a very high price. And the losses we are likely to experience as we move towards those futures may be greater than any of us will be able to bear. "Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street" is one of those great works of art, like Eugene O'Neill's "A Long Day's Journey into Night," that makes you stop and take stock of your life.
Modern dress, an emprty, crumbling theatre, and an incredibly brilliant ensemble bring David Mamet's "loose adaptation" of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" to the screen, under the direction of Louis Malle. According to the script, it's the first full run of the play. It's so simple, so clean, so clear, and absolutely riveting. Each role is played to the fullest, with Julianne Moore a stand-out in a beautifully subtle, detailed performance. Those who feel Chekhov doesn't speak to today's world need to see this film.
Director Louis Malle, a decade or so after My Dinner with Andre, teamed once again with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn to create Vanya on 42nd Street, and the second film is even more brilliant than the first. To help actors keep up their acting chops between jobs, Gregory staged recurring performances of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in a decrepit, abandoned Broadway theater (since renovated by Disney to accommodate The Lion King) and inviting selected guests to witness the proceedings. As filmed by Malle, this performance comes as close to smashing the barriers between film and theater as any films ever made (even Olivier's films of Henry V and Hamlet didn't succeed quite as well). Although the performances of Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and other New York actors are uniformly impressive, the standout is Brooke Smith, an actress of whom I know little (save for a guest shot on "Law and Order"). This movie shows us what a genius we lost when Louis Malle died, much too young.
Director Andre Gregory has quietly been rehersing a group of superb actors in an abandoned theatre on 42nd street. None of the cast nor the director had any intention of performing the play; perhaps their activity would the equiavlent of calasthetnics for the rest of us. But Gregory did allow two or three close friends to occassionally come in and watch the rehearsal. By means of this film, you can be one these friends, watching actors high in their craft perform one of Chekov's most challenging plays. The performance is compelling, the lighting and cinematography superb, and the entire concept brilliant. I confess some predisposition to liking this film- I watched "My Dinner with Andre" fifteen times, and eagerly consumed Spaulding Grey's "Swimming to Cambodia", but on the other side, I saw a college performance of Uncle Vanya and considered it to be the worst play I had ever seen in my life. Boy, was I wrong! This play is stunning. I highly urge your purchase of the video: here in Kauai, where there are so many other distractions, the two of us sat transfixed. You can even participate in the little refreshment break the actors have after Act II. A wonderful production, highly recommended!