Reviewed by: John Butler
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Julianne Moore, George Gaynes | Directed by: Louis Malle | Produced by: Fred Berner | Written by: Based on Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by David Mamet | Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
“Vanya on 42nd Street” is a favorite film of mine. It draws me in without any browbeating, and I really respect any movie that can do that. The story begins on 42nd street in New York where several actors enter an old abandoned theater for an informal production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for some friends. Their chitchat almost seamlessly blends into the beginning of the play.
A retired professor and his young wife are living on his late first wife’s estate in the country. The other residents are intellectuals whose lives have been revolving around “the Herr Professor” for over twenty years. Vanya, his brother-in-law, is now realizing that he has wasted those years on a shallow phony.
Many tensions lurk beneath the surface: hopeless loves, regrets, jealousies, resentments—ever the way with Chekhov. These gradually surface through a long night of truth-telling and a catastrophic meeting to decide on their futures. The movie ends not far from where it began, but with a message of (desperate?) hope beyond this life.
There is some offensive language, but mainly just “d*mn” and “h*ll”. There is also an attempt at adultery (though nothing remotely explicit). One can see at the beginning signs for “adult entertainment” establishments, too.
The great vices in this movie, however, are idleness, pettiness, and waste, and the characters feel themselves hopelessly sunk in them. It’s destroying their world. For a Christian, this illustrates the need to make not only birth and death intelligible, but also all that goes between. Vanya says, “I’m 47 years old. If I live to be sixty, I would have to live through 13 more years. How could I stand it? I’ve nothing to do with those years.” He’s dealing with questions of tedium and futility, not unlike those in Ecclesiastes.
All in all, an excellent, thoughtful, poetic movie for mature, thoughtful people.