There are those who complain that Russian cinema has abandoned its distinctive identity in favor of Hollywood conventions in recent years, and justifiably so. Ever since Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch, a surprise success in the United States and elsewhere in 2004, there has been a perplexing, sometimes even disturbing trend to move away from the trademarks of Russian filmmaking and cater to commercial American movies. Likewise, the major Hollywood studios invest in the country’s film industry. Disney’s first-ever Russian production The Book Of Masters (2009) demonstrates that as much as the involvement of Fox in the Revolution-era drama Admiral (2008) or Universal financing a modern version of the Soviet cult comedy An Office Romance (2011).
Not all is lost for Russian cinema, however, as recent movies like last year’s cyberpunk satire Generation P by Victor Ginzburg and the family drama Elena by Andrei Zvyagintsev have proven. Roman Karimov’s Inadequate People, shot on a shoestring budget of about $100,000 and released in 2010, is another of those rays of light. It is one of the promising debuts made at a bargain price in the tradition of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, or even Martin Scorsese’s student-film-turned-regular-feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? – Cheap pictures that served as a launching pad for their young directors’ careers.
Inadequate People is the story of Vitali (Ilya Lyubimov), a man in his thirties who moves into an apartment in a typical Soviet housing block in Moscow after having undergone anger-management therapy. His shrink (Evgeniy Tsyagnov) tells him to think positive, and Vitali manages to stay calm and composed initially. He seems perfectly normal and takes all the strange and annoying things in his new life with dry wit, such as the neighbors’ late-night noises, the ‘friendly’ treatment by clerks in stores and co-workers, his nymphomaniac boss Marina (Yuliya Takshina) hitting on him, and the annoying teenagers that appear to be everywhere. In short, he is exposed to all that which Muscovites and the rest of the country refer to as ‘our Russian realities.’
One of the pestering youngsters is Vitali’s next-door neighbor, a 17-year-old girl named Kristina (Ingrid Olerinskaya). She is grumpy, defiant, insolent, and cynical, constantly quarrels with her mother, and first takes advantage of Vitali by making him repair her light switch, help her with her English homework, and drive her to a date with Artur (Artem Dushkin), a brash young man. Yet there is more to Kristina, and Vitali soon realizes it. So does his psychiatrist, whom he connects to the teenage girl. A friendship evolves between Kristina and her thirty-something neighbor who has a dark secret we are introduced to piece-by-piece in the course of the film. The two develop a deep affection for each other – until her mother steps in to prevent them from seeing one another.
Inadequate People is a fascinating independent movie. It does not come off as a low-budget project; one could even compare it to much more expensive products, given the way it looks in a high-definition video release. We never have the feeling that this is a ‘homemade’ film in any aspect. The cinematography is professional, the direction and pacing marvelous, and the performances by the actors very realistic. We believe their emotions. In terms of both budget and creative approach, it probably helped the movie that Karimov took on many roles. Other than directing Inadequate People, he also wrote the screenplay and edited the film, as well as composing and arranging the score. It is therefore fair to describe him as a multi-talented man.
The characters are perhaps the most interesting aspect about the feature. The English title claims that they are ‘inadequate,’ yet this is a bit misleading. A better name for the movie would be something in the vein of ‘oddballs.’ This does not only apply to Vitali and Kristina, but also to everyone else in the film. The two protagonists are not the sole persons in the story that could benefit from consulting a shrink. Marina also sees the same psychiatrist as them, while Kristina’s mother, Artur, Vitali’s co-worker Sveta (Anastasia Fedorkova), Kristina’s friend Nina (Polina Iosilevich), and even the trick cyclist himself show signs of being headcases in one way or another. Each of them guides us through genuinely funny episodes that compel through their dry, yet subtle sense of humor.
Karimov’s general message, however, seems to be a different one. It is as if he were using Inadequate People as a mirror of sorts that he holds up to the characters themselves – and to the audience. The question, then, is who the actual ‘oddballs’ are. Is it the strange couple of Vitali and Kristina with their emerging relationship that is frowned upon by everyone else or the rest of the people in the film? They all have their fair share of issues, but none of them appears to be a total nutjob. Or maybe, and this is the more interesting take, is it the persons on or in front of the screen?