The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie

Verdict: These holy fools are too familiar

With its cast of nauseatingly lovable lunatics, House of Fools may make you feel like you've been tricked into suffering through the Kevin Spacey flick K-Pax with subtitles.

Russia's nominee for the 2002 Oscars is inspired by a real-life incident. In 1996, during the First Chechen War, the inhabitants of a mental institution were caught in the crossfire between Chechen and Russian troops. Abandoned by their doctor and nurses (who'd gone in search of a bus to evacuate their charges), the inmates were literally running the asylum when the soldiers arrived.

Director Andrei Konchalovsky embellishes reality by focusing on a sweetly demented patient named Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), who's firmly convinced that she is engaged to Canadian lite-rock star Bryan Adams (who appears in her fantasies). When a Chechen regiment takes over the asylum as a temporary base, a friendly soldier (Sultan Islamov) teasingly proposes marriage to Janna. She takes him seriously and is torn up over betraying her "commitment" to Adams. Meanwhile, the Russians draw closer.

Konchalovsky is probably best known for his 1985 hit Runaway Train, a pretty insane movie itself that, nonetheless, earned three Oscar nominations, including best actor for Eric Roberts. The Russian can be a powerful director, as we see in a couple of indelible images. A glowingly-lit fantasy train the patients "see" each night rumbles across a nearby trestle. A helicopter crashes and burns in the asylum courtyard, but Janna is so preoccupied with her romantic turmoil, she doesn't even notice.

The who's-really-insane motif is thuddingly familiar, whether couched in the gentle whimsy of the mid-'60s cult classic King of Hearts or the social consciousness of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Unfortunately, Konchalovsky offers no new insights. He plunges forward as if no one had ever thought of this particular juxtaposition before, and the results can be both embarrassing and annoying.

Perhaps that's why the film's best scene – and it really is wonderful – happens without a patient in sight. Two officers – one Chechen, one Russian – declare a temporary truce so they can exchange the body of a dead soldier. Sitting together under a tree, they suddenly realize that, only a few years earlier, they were comrades-in-arms in a different war. That, in fact, one had saved the other's regiment. It's a lovely moment of low-key humanity and an oasis of genuine feeling amidst a frenzy of holy fools.