movie review by
David Gurevich


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An American Rhapsody

Over the decades, Hollywood has used the Cold War as a tool in various genres, from James Bond mayhem all over Istanbul to Stanley Kubrik mayhem all over the Pentagon. Now, as Soviet tanks and bomb shelters have receded into history books, it is inevitable that the defining conflict of the 20th century’s second half will be used as a cause for teenage rebellion in San Fernando Valley.

An American Rhapsody is a story of an elite Hungarian family that flees the Stalinist terror to America around 1950. At first the plot description makes you think of such classy, sensitive Hungarian fare as Time Stands Still (1982); but the very first scene where Peter (Tony Goldwyn) and Margit (Nastassja Kinski) are forced to leave their baby Zsuzsa behind reminds you that you’re not really in Budapest anymore. Oh yes, it is shot in solemn black-and-white, and there are subtitles, for Goldwyn and Kinski speak Hungarian with credible accents, so one might expect a heart-rending drama wrapped in East European art-house leisurely-madcap quirkiness. But the pacing is tight, and every line of dialogue "foreshadows" -- we’re in Hollywood. As the final blow, the credits include the line I dread most: Based on a true story. The screen shrinks, and you expect the first block of commercials to arrive.

An American Rhapsody may be a four-hankie tearjerker, but it is a notch above the Movie of the Week -- just barely. (Curiously, "An" was added later, perhaps to avoid confusion with American Rhapsody, the new novel by uber-scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas, another Hungarian émigré. I had no idea that Franz Liszt still holds such sway over Hungarian self-perception.) First-time director Éva Gardos, a respectable Hollywood editor, based her screenplay on the story of her family. No wonder the screen drips with positivity. Tony Goldwyn as the aristocrat, whose publishing house was taken away by the Communists, toils overtime to overcome the bad-guy image that has haunted him since Ghost. If Nastassia Kinski is a tad unhinged as the long-suffering mother, she has a Big Secret, a Russian soldier ex machina, that will not be revealed until the end. But the center of the film is baby Zsuzsa who grows into Susanna (Scarlett Johansson), a rebellious Valley teenager who wants to hang out with handsome guys and gets grounded after a screaming match with her mother. See, for American Ordinary People it would be so easy to overcome the generation gap: just plop down on the couch and talk to a shrink. And… hug! An immigrant child who escaped evil Soviets does not need Judd Hirsch to travel to her childhood: she takes a plane back to Hungary. And comes back. Hug!

Fortunately, there’s a second plot line, more interesting than Susanna’s Valley Girl preoccupations. After she had to be left behind by her parents, she was taken in by Teri and Jeno, a childless village couple, who practically adopted her as her own. Here we have a rural Hungarian Rhapsody, replete with horses and chickens -- not such a bad place for a five-year-old to grow up in. No wonder cute little Zsuzsa is so disoriented when she arrives in the consumption-crazy San Fernando Valley circa 1955, with its cookie-cutter houses and cars -- who is Mom? Who is Dad? When can she go back to her red bicycle? These scenes -- family confusion overlaid with cultural one -- are shot with a scrupulous eye for detail and are genuinely touching. Even the flag-waving sentiment does not jar here, perhaps because it is handled with a postmodern wink: in order to feed his family, the aristocratic Peter had to shelve his publishing ambitions and take a factory job. Still, God Bless America, fireworks and all.

Once Susanna gets on the Orient Express to go back to Hungary to recover the inner little Zsuzsa, the movie deteriorates fast, and commercials are needed badly. Scarlett Johansson is a generic Exchange Student in Europe, who gapes in equal awe at picture-postcard views of oddly unpopulated Budapest and at the locals’ half-hearted attempts to buy her blue jeans. She is equally shocked to learn Teri and Jeno’s bucolic Eden was taken away by the government and her family villa was divided among ten families. "Can they do that?" Didn’t her parents tell her anything?

The conflict between her two sets of parents could have been a real human drama if Ms. Gardos developed the social dimension: while her biological parents are aristocrats, her adopted ones are peasants who are torn between the love for the little girl and the duty to return her. (There were no American lawyers in Hungary in 1955.) No wonder her grandmother, played by Ági Bánfalvy, who preserves her impeccable regal bearing even in the labor camp, dismisses these Hungarian "ordinary people" with such nonchalance when she comes to retrieve Zsuzsa. Thus we are forced to regard this complex relationship through Zsuzsa’s -- and later, Susanna’s -- eyes, when a more mature treatment would have enriched the film considerably. But for that to happen, Ms. Gardos just might have had to put a little distance from the material, delved just a little deeper into her parents’ lives, for which she might have gone on the couch… nah. We don’t need it at the mall. We want Based on a true story and a black-and-white picture of Ms. Gardos’ real-life parents as a closing frame. And lots of tissues. Or, out of respect for the genteel aristocratic Hungarian characters, nice monogrammed handkerchiefs. You’ll need them. There won’t be a dry eye in the audience.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]