If “Rear Window meets Life Is Beautiful” sounds like an all-timer of a cursed elevator pitch, then there’s nothing Michael A. Goorjian’s well-intentioned crowd-pleaser Amerikatsi will be able to do to win you over. A stubbornly unfashionable blend of broad comedy and highly sentimental prisoner-of-war drama, it’s paint-by-numbers middlebrow cinema of the kind the Weinstein Company would release regularly, albeit on a much more contained budget. While there is some brief novelty factor that movies of this distinctively Weinsteinian vintage are still getting made outside Hollywood, even as the broader cinematic landscape has moved past emulating that studio’s tried-and-tested formula in the hopes of awards success, that nostalgia for films that weren’t particularly good in the first place wears off quickly.
Highly likely to be Armenia’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar––although, judging by how much of the movie is in English, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being disqualified––Amerikatsi‘s biggest sin might be how it reduces an intriguing, overlooked aspect of post-WWII history into nothing more than a recipe for a fish-out-of-water comedy. Goorjian stars as Charlie, who, as a boy, fled Armenia following the genocide to start a new life in the Big Apple. As part of Stalin’s repatriation program, hundreds of those who fled (the New Yorker being one) were invited back to the Soviet Union. Although dedicated to the writer-director-star’s grandparents, survivors of the genocide, the film itself is lacking in this cultural specificity. There’s very little sense of why Charlie wanted to move back East, which is only emphasized by how much the film around the character paints him as a bumbling comic buffoon whose every move gets lost in translation and winds him up in a prison camp.
The film’s best sequence is the meeting that winds him up there as he’s questioned on charges for being an American spy; he fails to understand, with his pleas badly translated by an interpreter who barely speaks English. But even this devolves rather quickly into caricature. The ridiculous claim is backed up by the fact he’s “too metropolitan” and owns too many ties, the kind of set-up more at home in a broad Reagan-era comedy about those anti-capitalist reds than a drama aiming to grapple with the generational effects of a genocide on those who want to regain some kinship with their native land. When this examination of acclimatizing to a culture he’d long left does materialize, it takes place entirely behind bars; Charlie is imprisoned, and his only connection to the outside world comes through the window of the apartment opposite, where the prison guard and his family reside.
From here the movie becomes a tale of obsession dressed as a story about a prisoner overcoming adversity. He times his meals so he eats as they gather around the table, learning about Armenian culture from afar while mimicking their various pre-dinner toasts, eventually going on to fashion his daily routine in the shadow of theirs without ever leaving his cell. The best touch––largely because it’s a Hitchcockian conceit––comes when he sees the family arguing after the patriarch loses something, which he can identify the location of clearly as an outside observer, aiming to leave clues in the prison yard to remind him. But the movie is light on this and heavy on the sentimentality; it’s hard to be moved by him getting a personal experience of Armenian culture from afar when the people in charge locked him up barely hours after he arrived there.
This is all told in the broadest possible fashion, as evidenced by Andranik Berberyan’s overbearing score that goes from suffocatingly whimsical when soundtracking the whacky comedy, to generic tugging-on-the-heartstrings fluff whenever it shamelessly demands you shed a tear at this testament to the human spirit. It does a disservice to what should be an intriguing story, but unfortunately Amerikatsi contorts itself too hard to fit the mold of a stereotypical crowd-pleaser to satisfy as a historical drama.
Amerikatsi opens in NY and LA on September 8.