Nothing could be simpler than the plot of "Adam's Rib," yet nothing could be more satisfying than the way it plays out on screen. A warm, intimate, gently comic piece of work from the former Soviet Union, it is the most charmingly human of films, the bittersweet product of a sensibility that predated the revolution and has already outlived it.
In its focus on life's minor dramas, on the daily interactions that seem so small yet say so much, "Adam's Rib" inevitably recalls the best of Anton Chekhov, and it is no surprise that Vyacheslav Krishtofovich, the film's Ukrainian director, lists Chekhov as one of his favorite writers and has in fact adapted one of the master's short stories to the screen.
This particular tale, adapted by Vladimir Kounine from a book by Anatole Kourtchatkine, focuses on four women who share the same tiny space in an unnamed Russian city. A grandmother, her daughter, and two granddaughters, they can't help but get on one another's nerves as they fight for space while coping with the men in their lives.
The nameless crone of a grandmother (Elena Bogdanova) can only dream about the men she's known as she lies mute and paralyzed in her bed, tyrannizing the rest of the household with an insistent bell she is not shy about ringing whenever she feels the need of some attention.
Her daughter, Nina (the great Inna Churikova), works as a museum guide and worries about nearing 50 as she steers bored tourists past huge dioramas of the revolution. Twice divorced, she has somehow attracted the timid attentions of Evgeny (Andrei Tolubeyev), a shy, provincial engineer with a classic look of hangdog devotion.
Nina's two daughters, one from each husband, could not be more different. Lida (Svetlana Ryabova) is the eldest, an office worker ambivalent about her continuing affair with a self-satisfied colleague whom her sister, Nastya (Maria Golubkina), sarcastically calls "one-way Andrei."
Nastya is that way about everything. Though only 15, she is more cynical than her sister and mother combined, knowledgeable about hustling her way through the system and nothing but bossy toward her adoring lout of a boyfriend. Irritably superior in a way that John Hughes would immediately recognize, Nastya is nevertheless not smart enough to keep herself out of trouble.
Each of these women (at least the ambulatory ones) has a romantic crisis in the course of "Adam's Rib," and one of the pleasures of the film is the way we are effortlessly eased into these lives, becoming involved in everyone's situation gradually but completely.
Director Krishtofovich and writer Kounine have a splendid feel for the human condition, for the little sad/funny moments of awkwardness, hesitancy and exaggeration between friends and lovers. Despite their problems, these women are invariably more heroic than their men, displaying a wonderful resilience that leaves the opposite gender frankly dumbfounded.
And it doesn't hurt that the acting in "Adam's Rib" (at the Hillcrest Cinemas) is exceptionally capable. The entire cast, but (once again) especially the women, bring great delicacy as well as strength to their performances. Best of all is Churikova's passionate but careworn Nina, who, in the film's high point, reads the riot act to her impossible mother in a bravura serio-comic speech that encompasses more changes and shadings of emotion than most actresses are even aware exist.
Unlike recent Russian films like Pavel Lounguine's "Luna Park" or Vitali Kanievski's "The Independent Life," which have a radical visual sensibility, "Adam's Rib" has a familiar kitchen-sink look. Yet in its attitudes, in its characters' cynicism about the system, in the way the revolution has become a fairy tale you spoon-feed feeble ancients, it is clearly a post- glasnost product. Finally, though, it is the one thing the revolution never changed, the heartfelt emotionality of the Russian national character, that makes this as insightful and moving a film as it turns out to be.
A Mosfilm production, released by Orion Classics. Director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich. Screenplay Vladimir Kounine, from a novel by Anatole Kourtchatkine. Cinematographer Pavel Lebedev. Sound Jan Potocki. Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes.