John Ulmer

House of Fools is a war movie. Knowing that, images surely rush into your mind: conflicted soldiers sticking to their grim orders, grisly visuals of explosions and battle wounds, musician Bryan Adams... What? Didn't expect to see the Canadian crooner among the blaring shells and flying bullets? Sheesh, you need to get out more.

All kidding aside, Adams is an apt fit for Russian writer/director Andrei Konchalovsky's bizarro comedy about the futility of war and the silliness of love, set in the mid-1990s during the Russian-Chechen conflict. Adams comically pops up time and again to sing his calling-card tune, Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman, providing the movie with its somehow fitting theme song, which was also featured in 1995's Don Juan DeMarco.

As was that film, House of Fools is set in a mental institution. Adams' House of Fools performances take place inside the mind of Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), a delusional patient through whose eyes we see the events unfold. Each day Janna stares out the window at a passing train and imagines that this is the night Adams finally comes to marry her and take her away, so everything in life will be perfect. When Janna isn't dreaming of Adams, she's praying to the shrine she made in his honor. Her obsession may seem sick or laughable in black and white, but Vyotskaya inflects such a tender, bright-eyed optimism in her character, it's impossible to see Janna's longing as anything other than sweet and true, though tragically infeasible.

Ah, but a parallel is at work here. As hopeless as Janna's cause is, so is that, Konchalovsky contends, of the Russians and Chechens. The Russian military is trying to suppress and assimilate a people who refuse to be suppressed and assimilated, while the Chechens delude themselves with minor, meaningless victories, such as taking over Janna's mental hospital.

Aware of the potential Chechen advance, the staff of the hospital flees, leaving the patients to run things on their own. As unlikely as such circumstances may seem, the movie is based on a true story. Konchalovsky got the idea when he saw on the news in 1996 that the staff of a mental clinic in the Russian town of Ingushetia (near Chechnya) had flown the coop, leaving the patients on their own.

Konchalovsky has a knack for action and comedy, as he showed in his movie by which many Americans would know him, Tango & Cash (1989). House of Fools is a more thoughtful piece of work, though it's dragged down with the stereotyping of asylum-set flicks, such as the silent guy who says something profound at the end and the obsessive-compulsive person who throws fits. But the plotline is off-center enough to keep the audience guessing.

One bittersweet moment follows another. A standoff between Russian and Chechen units gives way to an impromptu exchange of drugs for cash. Later, Janna accepts a marriage proposal from a Chechen soldier, which causes her to nerve-wrackingly ponder breaking it off with Adams, whom she's sure is the true love of her life.

As Janna demonstrates, old assumptions and passions certainly die hard. And the worst is when they don't die at all.