Issue 67 (2020)

Marius Vaisberg: Naughty Grandma 1&2 (Babushka legkogo povedeniia 1&2, 2017 & 2019)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2020

Sania Rubenstein (Aleksandr Revva) is, as he stresses at the beginning of Naughty Grandma, not a transvestite; he’s a transformer, a master of disguise, who uses his phenomenal talents as a make-up artist for nefarious purposes. He acquired this ability at a very young age. His parents died when he was an infant and he has been raised by his aunt and uncle. The uncle is a theater director and hopes to make a serious dramatic actor out of Sania. This fails, as the young man is kicked out of theater school for smoking weed. The acting career may not stick—but the make-up does (pun intended) and Sania uses disguise to pull off shady deal after shady deal. We see him at the very beginning, dropping off a car and picking up a mysterious suitcase containing a single USB. This is followed by him disguising himself as a famous art critic whereupon he sells a nothing painting to an underworld figure. Sania and his lovely young female accomplice take off and celebrate their success with champagne and sex. In the middle of the night, the woman sneaks off with the suitcase. Of course, Sania has managed to stow the cash from the art sale in a backpack, filling the suitcase with books. The girl drives off, furious, and Sania does a happy dance only to have it cut short by a group of gangsters who burst into his apartment, demanding the suitcase. He thinks it is the suitcase with the money from the art deal, but it turns out to be the one with the USB. Having secured their prize, the gangsters are about to execute Sania when the men swindled on the art deal show up and a shootout ensues. Blood spatters everywhere and, in the end, only Sania is left alive.

babushka 1The situation gets worse when Sania, riding in a cab to get away from the mess, gets a text telling him to flee the country immediately. Sania pulls out his passport only to find out that it has expired. He goes to the passport office, where he and the clerk obviously know each other. She pulls out the archive keys and they disappear for a quickie. After a brief discussion of their relationship, Sania reveals the purpose of his visit: he needs a new passport right away and the clerk promises to have one in 4 working days. The two heists—of the USB and the art sale cash—form the criminal, or gangster, subplot of this film.

Next, we switch to a totally different setting—a geriatric band playing in a park. It turns out that Sania’s uncle, Nikolai Pavlovich Rubenstein, works at a retirement home and is this band’s artistic director. Sania shows up and the two men are glad to see each other with the uncle soon realizing that Sania is in big trouble. The USB contains material incriminating the Mayor, and Uncle Kolia tells Sania: you are now like Jason Bourne; you are Sania Bournstein! Just then the thug-like agents who are after the USB show up and Sania hides. He quickly puts on make-up and, when the agents start searching the apartment, he is sitting on the toilet dressed as a woman—the grandma of the title. “She” screams and the agents leave, but when Sania and Uncle Kolia go looking for the backpack with Sania’s money, it is gone, apparently fallen out the window where the uncle had hidden it.

babushka 1That evening, the staff come by to check on the residents and Sania is overwhelmed by Nurse Liuba, played by the singer Glukoza. Uncle Kolia presents the disguised Sania as his sister, Aleksandra Pavlovna Fishman, a poor woman who has been robbed and needs a place to stay. With the introduction of Luba and the uncle we have the second major plot of the film: the action in the retirement home. It too contains two sub-plots: a love story between Sania and Liuba, and Uncle Kolia’s striving to be a theatrical success. From this point on, most of the action takes place in the retirement home and is full of slap-stick gags, song-and-dance numbers staged by the elderly residents and their care givers, sexual innuendo, and lots and lots of bad language.

There are assorted love relationships. An elderly man courts his lady by having himself hoisted on a forklift, with disastrous results. A very tiny male resident named Anatolii Bessonov and played by the prominent actor Vladimir Tolokonnikov falls for Aleksandra Pavlovna, precisely because she is so large and bad-mouthed. He calls her his Valkyrie. The old lady who becomes “Aleksandra’s” roommate catches “her” peeing like a man, which “she” is, of course. “Aleksandra” takes three women from the retirement home shopping and they try on clothes, do a make-up session, and get tattoos, and sing and dance, of course. As they leave, they see theatrical costumes; thinking quickly, one of them pretends to faint and “Aleksandra” steals the costumes for the geriatric theater company.

babushka 2The love plot between Sania and Liuba is a bit more complex. Because of his desire for Liuba, Sania shows up at the retirement home looking like himself, but pretending to be Sasha, “Aleksandra’s” roommate’s nephew from Siberia. Sasha and Liuba hit it off. But things are never simple in this film and the love plot becomes intertwined with the gangster plot. Sania is still trying to get his passport and flee the country. When he, as “Aleksandra,” shows up at the passport office, he and Masha, the clerk, have their obligatory quickie. She then tells him that his passport has been confiscated by the authorities. Sania disguises himself as an even older lady, goes to the mayor’s office, and makes a vain effort to try and steal his passport. In the meantime, “Aleksandra” and Liuba become girlfriends of sorts and, one evening, Liuba confesses two things: that she always wanted to be a singer, but has stage fright; and that she has boyfriend troubles. As it turns out, Liuba’s problem boyfriend is the mayor himself, a married man. Our hero now dresses as the even older granny, shows up at the very expensive restaurant where the mayor has taken Liuba, confronts him in the toilet and starts to beat him up. The fight spills over into the restaurant proper and other men jump to the “granny’s” aid, beating the major further still. Liuba goes on another date with the mayor and asks “Aleksandra” to babysit her little son, Misha. Our hero has Anatolii briefly take his place while he dresses as the elderly granny again and brings Masha, the passport clerk who thinks that she is engaged to the mayor, to the restaurant. Masha, like our hero, is not a delicate flower and beats the mayor nearly senseless, while Sania/Aleksandra rushes back to pretend that s/he has been babysitting all along. Liuba arrives in tears and “Aleksandra” tries to comfort her, including giving her a kiss. After a brief discussion about lesbian relationships, which Liuba rejects, Sania/Aleksandra reveals himself to be Sasha and we see a series of young lovers’ scenes.

Tbabushka 2he love plot has been resolved, but the gangster plot and the theatrical performance plot have not. We learn at a residence meal that there is a kleptomaniac living in the home. This leads Uncle Kolia to look for the backpack by tracing a cellphone that has also gone missing. He is successful and a whole roomful of stolen goods is uncovered. But there is not much time to celebrate. Just as Sasha/Sania confesses his love to Liuba, he is whisked away by two thugs who recognize him from the surveillance video in the clothing store, where he and his three elderly companions tried on clothes and stole theatrical costumes. They call up the retirement home and threaten to cut off Sasha/Sania’s privates, if they don’t get the money in the backpack. The old-age residents band together to make the drop, only they are worried that doing so will make them miss their spot in the amateur talent show, for which they have been rehearsing. Solution: they decide to go in costume. The costumes add a comic touch, but that is not where the comedy ends. The elderly crew gets things mixed up and goes to the wrong cash-drop site. There are thugs waiting for them there but, instead of exchanging the cash for Sasha/Sania, they turn over a suitcase full of heroin. The old folks take the heroin and drive with it to what they think is the other rendezvous, only to find men ready to take the drugs and give them even more cash. They finally find and ransom Sasha/Sania, and the money they turn over is more than what is owed. The gangsters then split the “profits” with Sasha/Sania and the elderly crew.

babushka 2The rest of the film is a wrap-up and wind-down. One of the elderly crew turns out to be a former government official and deals with the USB—to the mayor’s detriment, of course. The geriatric performers win the talent competition and Uncle Kolia gets his dream, because Filipp Kirkorov, singer and producer, is in the audience and offers the geriatric troop a stage contract. Sasha/Sania discovers that what he really wants is a life with Liuba, not the “glamour” of the criminal world. The elderly couple on the forklift gets married—only the groom discovers that his ring is gone and we see the kleptomaniac ride off into the distance on her scooter in the concluding scene.

Naughty Grandma was so successful (the online version alone had almost 2 million views) that along came Naughty Grandma 2. This film is skimpier on plot, but no less full of sexual innuendo, coarse language, fight scenes and so forth. Sania has gone straight and works at Bank Borodino. Profits are high and he has gotten all of his friends from the retirement home to invest in the bank precisely because of its growth rate. Just as everything seems to be going beautifully, Liuba calls him to say that Misha, her son, needs very expensive heart surgery to survive. Sasha and Liuba rush to the hospital and, as they leave Misha’s room, they hear an announcement that Sasha’s bank has been closed. In cinema, when things are going to go wrong, they go horribly wrong and Liuba realizes that Sasha invested all of their money, hers as well as his, in the failed institution. She beats Sasha up and kicks him out of her apartment. Sasha then pleads with every possible bank official to get his money so that he can pay for Misha’s operation, but to no avail.

What does one do when one is in deep doo-doo? You call Uncle Kolia, of course. He is now working in Moscow, and with him are two staff members from the retirement home. When the head nurse sees Sasha, she beats him silly for losing her money, but then all four band together to solve the problem. They bring in Zaza, a hot-blooded Armenian with some serious weaponry, and set out to get back their money by robbing Bank Borodino. Sania disguises himself as the oldest granny in his repertoire and the other four dress as the musical group ABBA. “Granny” demands her pension while the others come in and pull out their guns. They do get into the bank vault, but only to discover that it is empty: all the money is gone. This escapade is caught on a surveillance camera and the bank president recognizes Sasha/Sania.

This film, like the first Naughty Grandma, has a second, romantic plot line. Almost as soon as Liuba throws Sasha out, we see her with Khariton Uzdechkin, a famous hockey player. He was Liuba’s classmate and always had a crush on her. He takes advantage of Sasha’s absence to do some serious courting. He pays for Misha’s operation and starts taking Liuba out on dates. These are as much of a disaster as Liuba’s dates with the mayor, only in a different way. To help her relax and unwind, Khariton takes Liuba to an amusement park. Between the rides and Khariton catapulting her out of a bumper car, Liuba ends up totally bedraggled and vomiting behind a tree. Khariton thinks this is great and good for her health. He then takes her on a date at an ice rink, where the violinist hired to entertain them slips and ends up with a damaged head, and Liuba gets so drunk that she passes out.

babushka 2But back to our hero. The bank president, a woman whom Sasha had done his best to flatter, sees an opportunity. She will exact revenge on her ex-husband, the bank’s owner, a really nasty oligarch named Sergei Borodin, a man so mean that he will not let her see her own son. She makes Sasha an offer: he will dress up as Aleksandra Pavlovna Fishman and hire himself out as a tutor and nanny to Borodin’s son Boria. While living on the estate, he is to find the senior Borodin’s papers and also where the oligarch keeps his money, or rather the gold into which Borodin has converted his cash. Sasha can keep the gold as long as he turns the papers over to the former Mrs Borodin. Sasha agrees to the deal.

Getting hired by Borodin is not that easy and, because the oligarch is a serious history buff, “Aleksandra” is forced to pass a history test. This s/he does by wearing an ear piece that links her/him back to the retirement home crew, who frantically search for answers on Google. Once hired, more challenges lie ahead. Boria, the son, turns out to be a horrid child and the estate manager warns the new nanny that he has injured many previous employees. When “Aleksandra” enters Boria’s room, it is rigged so as to knock her/him unconscious and soon s/he is bound with duct tape. Of course, Boria is dealing with a powerful grown man, not an elderly nanny, and soon it is the kid who is tied up. The next day “Aleksandra” takes Boria to school. Uncle Kolia and his crew have bribed the schoolboys to beat up Boria and teach him a lesson. But Boria, when he enters the schoolyard, offers them twice as much money to beat up the nanny. This is a mistake, of course, and “Aleksandra” punches and roundhouse kicks the boys into submission. On the way home, the nanny reveals that s/he has broken into Boria’s V Kontakte account and will post his secret crushes on a public site if he does not behave. Boria vows revenge.

babushka 2One of history buff Sergei Borodin’s most prized possessions is a huge table with toy soldiers set up to look like the battle of Borodino. Boria steals one of the toy soldiers and plants it in “Aleksandra’s” room. As in Naughty Grandma, “Aleksandra” has a roommate. This time it is one of Borodin’s playboy playmate-like employees and she helps by hiding the toy soldier in her hair. What also helps is that the estate manager is a lesbian and has fallen for Aleksandra. As she says earlier in the film when she sees Sasha/Alexandra lifting weights, “I like a woman with balls,” not knowing, of course, how literal this statement is. Sasha, now in possession of the toy soldier, takes it back to his uncle and the rest of the crew, Borodin’s ex-wife now included. The little Armenian throws the soldier against the wall in exasperation, the head breaks off, and our heroes discover that the soldier is pure gold, just painted to look like a toy.

Back at the estate, the dad realizes who the real thief was and threatens his son if he does not get a good grade in history. Nanny “Aleksandra” comes to rescue and rigs up the ear piece s/he her/himself used, this time with Borodin’s chauffeur answering the questions. The chauffeur, it turns out, was a brilliant history professor, but could not make enough money to send his daughter to school in England and so took the job working for Borodin. Boria gets great test results and is even copied by the class smart kid, a girl on whom Boria has a crush. Everyone is delighted. Boria bonds with “Aleksandra” and together they sneak Misha out of the hospital. They go on a helicopter ride, a bike ride, and to a shooting gallery where Boria gets to use an automatic weapon. Then they feast on meat skewers (shashlyki) where an emotional reunion between Boria and his mother has been arranged.

babushka 2Borodin Sr is pleased with his son’s grades and offers Boria his choice of birthday party. Sania/Sasha and his crew see this as a chance to steal Borodin’s gold and the papers his ex-wife wanted. Because he is such a history buff, Borodin runs his household like a medieval estate with staff dressed in period costumes and all sorts of equipment like a catapult. Uncle Kolia and friends again dress as ABBA and sneak into the party. “Aleksandra” distracts the estate manager with fake seductive moves while his/her friends take the toy soldiers and all the other gold they can find. The estate manager reaches under “Aleksandra’s” skirt and is shocked, but then gets head-butted into unconsciousness.

All ends well. The heist is pulled off using the catapult and a hot air balloon. Borodin is arrested for tax evasion. Liuba decides that, as grateful as she is to Khariton for paying for Misha’s operation, she still loves Sasha. Misha is delighted, because he wanted his mom and Sasha to get back together all along, and Sasha asks Liuba to marry him. Zaza falls for the pugilistic crew member and, in the end, there is a wedding. Again, it is not Liuba and Sasha, but the Armenian and his love. Since both are combative, their wedding turns into a brawl. In the middle of it, Sasha asks Liuba to marry him one more time and—finally—she accepts.

babushka 2What can one say about these films? They are entertaining on a crude and primitive level. In many ways, they appeal to the basest of human desires, the urge to be socially unacceptable and to verbally and physically express frustration and anger. Like the main character in Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller, 2016), Sania/Sasha swears up a storm, but so do other characters and the films admit that even teen and pre-teen boys swear, think about sex, and can behave violently. As in the many Marvel films, Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder, 2017) being but one example, gratuitous violence abounds and we see heroes beat up villains, villains beat up heroes, and both beat up each other. This is especially true of Naughty Grandma 2, where Sasha gets hit by just about everyone. Some of the violence is things we would all love to do, but dare not: “Aleksandra” gets to hit the bratty child Boria, as the estate manager watches and cheers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of these films are how they treat homosexuality and old age. Homosexuality is played with in a number of ways but, unlike violence and bad language, true homosexual contact never occurs. In Naughty Grandma, a dead thug falls on top of Sania and they end up literally mouth-to-mouth. One of the commentators on a fan site was particularly disturbed by this scene, because of its homoerotic implications. Also in Naughty Grandma, Anatolii expresses disgust that he French-kissed “Aleksandra” not knowing that “she” was a man. This is male mouth-to-mouth contact, but it is no more willingly done than when a body falls on Sania. The estate manager in Naughty Grandma 2 is clearly a lesbian, but no contact between her and any women appears on the screen. Of course, gender is a central topic of this film, because our hero is a man dressed as a woman, but the fact that homoerotic longing, unlike the urge to swear and hit people, is never realized deserves noting. Does this indicate that this is the one desire that continues to remain taboo?

babushka 2The other interesting topic is the treatment of old age. Again, a central plot device is that a strong young man is dressed as an old lady. People do not expect “her” to jump out of second-floor windows, leap over fences, beat up teenage gangs, and so forth; and the fact the “she” does adds shock value, and thus pleasure, to the film. Sasha/Sania takes advantage not only of people’s assumption that an older person will be weak, he also plays with assumptions that old people, especially old women, will violate taboos; they are seemingly given social strength to compensate for physical weakness. Thus, as the very old and nameless granny, s/he walks into the bank, pushes aside another customer and demands her pension. S/he muscles her way into the mayor’s office in a similar manner and even walks into a men’s toilet to assault the mayor. It is, in many senses, precisely old women who get to hit people with their handbags, say unseemly things, and do all of those things that tempt us all but that most people do not allow themselves, for propriety’s sake. In this way, the films expose the power and the vulnerability of the elderly. This is especially true of Naughty Grandma, which includes real geriatric actors. This film has jokes about the infirmities of the elderly, such as their forgetfulness and their physical limitations. But this film also tells us how “with it” older people are, how they enjoy music and dance, and dressing up, and misbehaving, how they are more “with the times” than those in power. It is they, after all, who turn their talent show performance into a contract. As with homosexuality, perhaps the treatment of the elderly is another of those areas of confusion or at least dis-ease. There is a temptation to put them out of sight in an old-age home and a need to admit that they are, after all, someone’s beloved grandmas and granddads who, not too long ago, were the mainstays and principle caregivers of any Soviet family.

Postscript: Naughty Grandma 3 is apparently in the works and scheduled for release in 2021

Natalie Kononenko
University of Alberta

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Naughty Grandma, Russia, 2017
Color, 86 minutes
Director: Marius Vaisberg (Marius Balčiūnas-Weisberg)
Script: Saeed Davdiev, Evgenii Sheliakin, Marius Vaisberg, Aleksandr Revva
Composer: Brian S. Carr
DoP: Bruce Allen Green
Choreographer: Aleksei Karpenko
Cast: Aleksandr Revva, Glukoza (Nataliia Ionova), Evgenii Gerchakov, Marina Fedunkiv, Vladimir Tolokonnikov, Nataliia Bardo, Elena Valiushkina,
Producers: Marius Vaisberg, Aleksandr Revva
Production Studio: Vice Films

Naughty Grandma 2: Elderly Avengers, Russia, 2019
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Marius Vaisberg
Script: Saeed Davdiev, Marius Vaisberg, Aleksandr Revva, Sergei Ivanov (Evgenii Sheliakin), Gadzhi Ataev
Composer: Brian S. Carr
Choreographer: Aleksei Karpenko and Aleksandr Chernikov
Cast: Aleksandr Revva, Glukoza (Nataliia Ionova), Evgenii Gerchakov, Marina Fedunkiv, Dmitrii Nahiev, Roman Galusyn, Elena Valiushkina, Roman Kurtsyn, Egor Gerchakov, Artemii Padalka
Producers: Marius Vaisberg, Aleksandr Revva and Iurgis Vaisberg
Production Studio: Vice Films

Marius Vaisberg: Naughty Grandma 1&2 (Babushka legkogo povedeniia 1&2, 2017 & 2019)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2020

Updated: 2020