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New York Times
June 15, 2003
film review
History Ended, and There Was Money to Be Made

PAVEL LOUNGUINE'S "Tycoon: A New Russian" appears on the surface to be a smart political whodunit about the murder of a corrupt kingpin of the post-Soviet disorder. And the film, a French-Russian co-production that opened here on Friday, can indeed be enjoyed strictly as entertainment.

It's the complex, fast-moving tale of an academic, a mathematical economist named Plato Makovski, who uses his brains and charisma to game an entire nation — and amass an obscene fortune.

But "Tycoon" is also an account of the way in which many Russians of the 53-year-old filmmaker's generation — what might be called the middle generation — experienced history. Because despite the enormous changes that took place as the country moved from Brezhnev to Yeltsin to Putin, the period covered by the movie forms a single spiral to those who lived through it. And as "Tycoon" flashes back from a TV report of Makovski's assassination to tell the story of how he amassed his wealth and power, the film gives us today's Russia refracted through the Soviet prism — and also the Soviet Union seen in hindsight. Mr. Lounguine ("Taxi Blues") crosses back and forth over the divide of the Soviet Union's dissolution, in 1991. The juxtaposition of pre-and post-reform scenes reveals the deformities of post-Soviet existence without the usual moralizing. As Plato's friends and associates recount their memories of him, "Tycoon" turns into a Russian-style buddy movie, exploring male codes of honor and betrayal. It also plumbs the mystery of the Kremlin, likened by one character to the Hindu god Shiva, possessed of a confounding whirl of arms.

The movie trades on the overhyped career of the industrial magnate, media baron and power broker Boris A. Berezovsky, who left Russia for luxurious exile in London and is currently threatened with extradition. But audiences don't need to know the tabloid details of Mr. Berezovsky's life or hold the key to the Russian roman à clef that inspired Mr. Lounguine's screenplay (written with Alexandre Borodianski and the novel's author, Yuli Dubov). In fact, viewed as a film about Mr. Berezovsky, "Tycoon," known in Russia as "Oligarkh," falls short. Nothing could be as colorful or comic as his real, and especially his rumored, intrigues. Ever the klieg-light king, Mr. Berezovsky got it right when, returned to the media spotlight by the film, he huffed that its sex scenes were bad.

What the film does deliver up, in addition to suspense, is the phantasmagoria of the late Soviet Union. Without a hint of irony, a Communist Party functionary chides an economics conference: "Generations starved, lived in mud huts, and gave their lives for the existence we have." Soviet existence! His wife is just upstairs, energetically betraying him in Plato's bed.

Plato and his pals, fellow economists (and mostly fellow Jews) in an economics-defying system, finesse Soviet rigidities with fast talk and petty bribes. They enjoy a modest comfort — until, perversely, economic reform causes their standard of living to plummet. But reform also opens other, crooked, avenues for the talented and the ambitious, and Plato, in an overly flattering performance by the Russian film idol Vladimir Mashkov ("The Thief"), is both. With his friends, he begins selling thesis papers to degree-hungry ignoramuses, and uses this primitive accumulation of capital to go into "business." As the rules keep changing, they respond with ever-more inventive scams. Bravura gamesmanship soon evolves into not-so-brilliant gangsterism, and cash really begins to flow when the rakes hook up with Larry (Levani Uchaineshvili), a steely, piano-playing Georgian fixer.

In depicting Plato's rise — or is it fall? — from scholar to tycoon, the film invites viewers to consider the questions that suddenly confronted Russian society after the demise of Communism: What are the new values? Is there anything of value in the old values? What's legal — and illegal? Who's right? Who's wrong? And who's to say?

The film's moral center is the rumpled, raincoated figure of Shmakov, played by the persuasively Columbo-esque Andrei Krasko. Shmakov is the honest gumshoe from the provinces — supposedly beyond the reach of Moscow's decadence and shady entanglements — who's been summoned to the capital to investigate the goings-on at Plato's conglomerate. But he finds himself preempted by a younger, better-connected colleague, who is not necessarily there to help. And it turns out that while Shmakov's dogged policeman's soul remains untainted by the political skulduggery all around him, his body has succumbed to Soviet-era pollution in another way: he needs an asthma inhaler, his lungs poisoned by the air of his Rust Belt home.

To pick up on such sly touches, it helps to have a little "Moscow cuisine" — the Russian equivalent of inside-the-beltway knowledge. There are images and references in "Tycoon" that amount to coded messages — some subtle enough to perhaps elude even Russian viewers. (They, at least, don't have the disadvantage of having to read subtitles in order to follow the multilayered plot.) One example: In a scene set in an important government minister's office, there's a tennis racket hanging on the wall beneath a too-small photograph of Boris Yeltsin. It may refer only to Yeltsin's well-known and genuine love of the game. Or it could be a winking dig at Mr. Yeltsin's tennis coach, who kept a Kremlin office and was responsible for the giveaway of a private television network. Or maybe it's meant as a reminder that tennis was how Mr. Yeltsin bonded with his chief bodyguard, who ran the machinery of state in the absence of his perpetually hospitalized charge and who privatized a Siberian oil company into Mr. Berezovsky's pocket. For insiders, that tennis racket on the wall conjures an entire world.

"Tycoon" also conjures up the clichéd "taste" of the new Russian elite, their simulated baroque interiors in Catherine-the-Great style, their imported neo-Biedermeier pieces mingling with tiger skin rugs. Soviet-era details are carefully rendered as well, but only to point up their shabbiness. Here the film misses an opportunity. Soviet design involved more than Khrushchev's ugly prefab concrete apartment boxes and Brezhnev's Lada jalopies. Although they were not available to the masses, there were also grand high-ceilinged apartments of hand-crafted parquet and wrought iron, and stylish sedans, like the Pobeda and the earlier Volga. More accessible products of Soviet culture included not just cheesy tv, but wry spaghetti easterns, sublime divas and memorable radio voices. And Soviet-era style, familiar to people from Uzbekistan to Ukraine to Brighton Beach, is becoming a major referent in Russian pop culture and advertising. It sells.

"Tycoon" sold in Russia too, setting a box-office record in its opening weekend. Presumably, Mr. Berezovsky didn't mind that, bad sex and all.

Stephen Kotkin is the author of ``Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization.

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