The Hollywood Reporter
Kirk Honeycutt

Having virtually disappeared from movie houses for too long, Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, who has worked in both Hollywood and Europe, makes a welcome return with House of Fools (Dom durakov). It's the return that is welcome, however, not the film. It's not a bad film per se, but it lacks imagination. Once more we are asked to take a satirical look at the brutality of war through the eyes of the insane, a concept that goes back at least to Philippe De Broca's 1966 King of Hearts.

Konchalovsky's approach is at least more naturalistic than De Broca's, insisting that all his characters stay rooted in some form of reality. What he achieves is a film where individual scenes shine, but the sum of its parts is, frankly, banal. The war/madness equation has always been pat and simplistic. Plus, any attempt to stage a drama in a mental hospital requires a fair amount of fudging about the nature of mental illness. Those who suffer from diseases of the mind are seldom the colorful, entertaining lot that swarms the screen here with fascinating psychoses and outrageous behavior.

The film's American release appears doomed no matter what its critical reception. While the war winding down in Iraq may make the subject timely, the American public is probably not in the mood for a cinematic protestation that war is hell.

At an aging mental hospital a few miles from the Chechen border, doctors and staff flee when war sweeps by, leaving patients to fend for themselves. Over a couple of days, both Chechen rebels and Russian soldiers occupy the building.

A cheerful though deluded inmate named Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya, the director's wife) has long ago retreated into a private fantasy world in which recording star Bryan Adams is her fiancé. Indeed, Adams (who amusingly plays himself) appears to her in scenes brimming with light and romance as he sings sweetly to his lover.

The Chechen invasion brings a "rival" for her affections. A soldier (Sultan Islamov), charmed by Janna's accordion playing and bright innocence, impulsively asks her to marry him. Taking this seriously, she and the other inmates dress her for a "wedding" that night, where she visits the troops' quarters. A Russian counterattack the next morning dispels the illusion. The soldier swiftly abandons her as bombs fall. Soon she and the others must cope with Russian troops who storm the building, looking for a sniper in the crumbling institution.

Konchalovsky is refreshingly evenhanded in his portrayal of Chechen and Russian soldiers. There are no monsters here, but rather men with dirty jobs to do who clearly would rather be singing, dancing and smoking dope. In one fascinating scene, where a Russian detail offers to sell a Chechen corpse to the Chechens, both commanders realize they served together in the Afghanistan war.

Such moments enliven this otherwise static film. House of Fools seems more a collection of incidents than a fleshed-out dramatic story. The faux engagement is the movie's only dramatic development other than the military maneuvers. And the other patients, looking like outcasts from a Fellini movie, are poorly characterized.

Vysotskaya strikes a delicate balance by playing madness yet creating a character with whom an audience can empathize. Her innocence and fragility are what anchors this film. In her own way, Janna proves surprisingly resilient and resourceful.

The video production is of poor quality, which at times is distracting. Also, the drab institutional look provided by the cinematographer and designer is somewhat tiresome to gaze at for so much time. It does, however, contrast sharply with the bucolic exteriors being torn apart by men of war and their machines.