Issue 23 (2009)

Andrei Kudinenko: The Joke (Rozygrysh, 2008)

reviewed by Joshua First © 2009

A remake of Vladimir Men'shov's popular comedy from 1977 of the same title, Andrei Kudinenko's film offers an interesting update on the theme of social relations in the Russian classroom. Unlike its Soviet predecessor, however, the contemporary version of The Joke spares few clichés in its attempt to prove that Russia can also work within the John Hughes-inspired genre of teen melodramedy. Like other examples of the genre—Pretty in Pink (1986), Can't Buy Me Love (1987), Heathers (1990), Mean Girls (2004), etc. —The Joke draws on a number of familiar character types. To provide a laundry list: Here, we have the rich preppy (Oleg Komarov) and his yes-man (Korbut), the mean girl and her entourage (Tania, Alisa and Ekaterina), the dumb jock (Andrei), the smart, poor girl (Taia), the nerd who wants to be popular (Gera), the authoritarian dad (Komarov's father), the meek teacher (Vera Ivanovna), and of course, the new kid (Igor Glushko). With these ingredients, we need only cook it up in the traditional manner—public humiliation, a love triangle, consumerism, suicide attempt, the triumph of right over wrong and the final reconciliation via the school dance.

Set in an “ordinary Moscow school,” the beginning of The Joke finds the reputation and social position of the handsome and popular Oleg (Evgenii Dmitriev) in jeopardy. Arriving to his English class late, the new teacher Vera Ivanovna (Iana Esipovich) assigns Oleg a “troika” after he botches an attempt to tell the class what he wants to do after graduation. Oleg is the son of a wealthy businessman who donates money to the school, and expects preferential treatment. To add insult to injury, he is outdone by Igor' (played by Russian hip hop artist, Noize MC), a new student from the Siberian village of Karymkary, who flawlessly talks about his hobbies (books and music) in English, and delights the class and Vera Ivanovna with some freestyle rhymes.

Igor' is a budding rapper, whose skills quickly earn him a prominent position in the class hierarchy. Unconcerned with status, however, Igor' makes friends with outcasts like Taia Petrova, a cute girl whose sick mother's refusal to allow her to wear contemporary fashions earns her a poor reputation among the status-conscious girls in her class. Igor' quickly develops a romantic relationship with Taia, unaware that she harbors a secret crush on Oleg.

Meanwhile, Oleg resolves to play a series of mean-spirited practical jokes on Vera Ivanovna to compel her to quit her job—from sticking a condom filled with milk into her purse to photoshopping her head onto a woman's body whose breasts are exposed and distributing the image to the entire school. The headmistress, Mariia Vasil'evna (Irina Kupchenko), suspects he is guilty, but needs proof of the infraction to pursue an expulsion hearing for Oleg. She turns to her favorite pupil, Taia, for the truth. Taia, however, is conflicted by her attraction to Oleg and, to keep her quiet, he takes her shopping and has sex with her. In the end, the school administration agrees to let Oleg off the hook with a warning, provided he has learned his moral lesson. The film ends as Igor's band plays during the end of the year school dance, with a now-fashionable Taia looking longingly in his direction.

While entertaining and interesting at times, Kudinenko's film ultimately fails to capture the energy and emotion that made John Hughes a household name in the teen movie genre during the 1980s in Hollywood, precisely because the director mobilizes the genre's clichés so unselfconsciously. The visual and narrative tropes in The Joke are at times lifted directly from Hollywood films and television—Oleg's “aw- shucks” voice-over monologue that runs throughout the film evokes Zach in television's Saved by the Bell. Likewise, the use of freeze-frame to introduce characters at the beginning—along with the presence of canonical “teen movie” landscapes like the mall, the locker room, the rich home/poor home juxtapositions—ultimately lead us away from Men'shov's 1977 original.

The contemporary version stands out from the original in its visual and narrative style, first and foremost. Despite its novel theme, the 1977 The Joke feels very much like a stagnation-era film with its mild satire, drawn-out dialog (the infamous quality of mnogoslovnost'), and washed-out colors that produce the drab-looking characters and urban spaces so characteristic of Soviet cinema from this period. In this respect, Kudinenko's film evokes little nostalgia for the original, or for a supposed golden age, during which it was made.

Despite this, there are a number of references beyond the plot that connect the remake to the original. The most obvious is Dmitrii Kharat'ian's role as Oleg's father. Originally famous for the role of Igor' in the original, Kharat'ian quickly fell into obscurity after failing to land a role of similar quality. Consequently, until recently, Kharat'ian's image and career remained fixed to Men'shov's debut. Nonetheless, his presence in a film clearly addressed to ucheniki themselves, is more likely a reference to the conventions of a Hollywood remake than to an unknown figure from an unknown (and, indeed, unwatchable) film. (After all, I'm sure there is little of interest here for the 40- and 50-somethings who got excited about Men'shov's original). Instead, Kharat'ian functions like Robert Mitchum as the detective in Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear or Charlton Heston as the dying chimp in Tim Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes in order to signal, “Remake” to anyone that cares. But here, the meanings of such intertextuality end.

Another connection to the original is perhaps more significant: Kudinenko's film was produced by Pavel Lungin, the son of screenwriter Semën Lungin, who penned the original for Mosfil'm. From this perspective, we might interpolate a certain generational inheritance; that is, a thematic and perhaps ethical affinity with the original, if not cultural or stylistic. After all, despite the considerably more serious practical jokes that Oleg plots against Vera Ivanovna in comparison to the Brezhnev-era Oleg, we are left with a sense of youthful innocence at the end of both the original and its remake. No one is truly evil – Oleg is simply misguided and scared of his father's threats of being drafted into the army if he doesn't pull his English grades up.

Igor' performs a similar role as he did in the original—he represents the morally upright character, who refuses to participate in the sadistic games of his classmates, while validating youth culture trends for the adult world. I find this aspect of The Joke much more compelling in the original than in Kudinenko's remake. Men'shov's disentanglement of pop music from notions of hooliganism, and the faculty's acknowledgement of young people as individuals with their own interests and talents, was a breath of fresh air for his rejection of Soviet cinema's dichotomous representation of youth, as either criminal or Komsomolets. In the Russia of Kudinenko's remake, youth culture and pop music are already ubiquitous and unproblematic from an ethical standpoint. Consequently, I feel that Noize MC's role as Igor', and his presence throughout the entire soundtrack, serve as promotional vehicles for the artist's rap career, rather than a device that legitimately advances the plot. Perhaps the film's very assumption that pop music continues to be problematic is what adds a certain anachronistic quality to the narrative.

In any case, Kudinenko's The Joke has already received a number of awards, thus cementing its place in the canon of post-Soviet popular cinema. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the film will be picked up by a distributor in the English-speaking world, precisely because the teen movie has long ago entered a different stage of its generic existence, one which either problematized its standard tropes or established a certain ironic distance between the spectator and the film, drawing attention to the clichés at work within the genre itself. Kudinenko's The Joke presents neither of these generic transformations, perhaps because the Russian “teen movie” is still too new to disrupt audience expectations.

Joshua First
University of Michigan

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The Joke, Russia, 2008
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Andrei Kudinenko
Scriptwriters: Andrei Zhitkov and Aleksandr Kachan
Cinematography: Pavel Kulakov
Production design: Natal’ia Navoenko
Music: Noize MC and Vladimir Eglitis
Cast: Evgenii Dmitriev, Noize MC (Ivan Alekseev), Klavdiia Korshunova, Irina Kupchenko, Iana Esipovich, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Dmitrii Kharat’ian, Donatas Grudovich, Mariia Gorban’, Iurii Kuznetsov, Sergei Iushkevich, Andrei Nazimov
Producer: Pavel Lungin and Ol’ga Vasil’eva

Andrei Kudinenko: The Joke (Rozygrysh, 2008)

reviewed by Joshua First © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09