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It’s no surprise that one of the stars of Moscow Never Sleeps is Moscow itself. Writer-director Johnny O’Reilly punctuates his Crash-like story with shots of Moscow at its prettiest: colorful skyscrapers, including the gorgeous Evolution Tower, lit at dusk; a pan of a beautiful night sky; lavish fireworks; a sunrise. But the characters who populate this scenery aren’t so memorable.
The film’s intertwining plotlines take place on City Day, essentially Moscow’s version of the Fourth of July. There’s a lot of drama going on alongside the festivities involving Valery (Yuriy Stoyanov), a well-known actor now in his twilight years who’s told that without surgery, death is imminent, and his wife (Elena Safonova) and mistress (Elena Babenko); Valery’s prodigal son, Ilya (Oleg Dolin), who’s trying to win back pop singer Katya (Evgenia Brik) from Anton (Aleksey Serebryakov), a wealthy but corrupt businessman; Vladimir (Mikhail Efremov), an emotionally abusive alcoholic who’s dumping his mute mother, Vera (Tamara Spiricheva), into a decrepit old folks home so his son, Stepan (Sergey Belov), and Stepan’s girlfriend no longer have to care for her; Vladimir’s rebellious teen daughter (Lyubov Aksyonova) and her reserved stepsister (Anastasiya Shalonko), who despise each other; and finally the jerks who mash on the drunk and clearly underage girls after having spent the day dragging Valery, who escaped from the hospital, around town to show off their famous find.
The gist of it is that you get to know zilch about these characters, barring a few exceptions. Besides, for the most part, the Katya/Anton/Ilya love triangle, everybody treats each other horribly. There are two catfights, drugs and drinking, attempted rape, attempted suicide, assault, and spousal humiliation while a couple has guests. A man who’s no contender for Father of the Year tells his young son that “strong people don’t cry” when the kid is upset about his dad leaving the country.
There’s only one plot thread that has a hint of motivation behind it. (Excepting the ones involving the troublemaking guys: Some things need no explanation.) More often, you’re watching characters so blank that sometimes you don’t get their names or make the association that a certain character is involved in another story line. The women are the most impressive here, particularly Spiricheva, whose expressions are more emotive than other performers’ line deliveries, and Shalonko, who lends her character a heartbreaking longing to escape the ugliness of her stepfamily, particularly when her bratty stepsister gets them into dangerous situations.
Resolutions that are likely supposed to come across as profound are merely silly, including sudden bonding and an apparent miracle. O’Reilly had an opportunity to build a more in-depth story around one of his conversations, in which Anton and his driver are discussing Moscow as a bottlenecked prison that they love anyway: “How do you escape a prison you love?” Anton asks, which could have easily been turned into a metaphor for a suffocating relationship, but the director doesn’t go there. Instead, he prefers an exploration of his title that’s only surface-deep. Moscow Never Sleeps, but viewers probably will.