William Rose, 1963's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is one of my all-time favorite comedies with its ridiculous cast, madcap comedy and general zaniness. Three years later, Rose tried to duplicate the success with the similar formula. Unfortunately, 1966's The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming doesn't match up.
Off the East Coast and near Gloucester, a Russian sub is run aground by a captain (Theodore Bikel) who wants to get a good look at America. The Russians send a landing party to shore commanded by Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) to find some sort of help....secretly of course. The little island is quiet though, everyone basically minding their own business. Rozanov and his eight-man patrol first go to the house of a vacationing writer, Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner), and his family. As they ever so secretly and quietly seek help -- a powerboat to help pull the sub off a sandbar -- rumor spreads through the island like wildfire. Anyone and everyone who can carry a weapon takes to the streets to find the Russians.
Now, I'm no dummy. I knew going into this movie it was a comedy. Having watched it, I know it is a comedy. But reading that description, nothing at all screams comedy about it, and I think that may be the biggest thing working against this Norman Jewison-directed comedy. A madcap, screwball comedy about a bunch of strangers traveling a couple hundred miles to unearth some buried money? That's funny. A madcap, screwball comedy about a tiny New England island trying to hunt down some marauding Russians? Yeah, not so much. My first reaction was for the film to do a complete 180. An action movie, a drama, a politically-charged thriller with this basis premise would be a gem, full of tension and anxiety.
That's me in my own head though. The basic premise of the story just isn't funny then. I may have chuckled here and there, but I don't remember actually laughing out loud once. The comedy and laughs weren't there for me. As posses sprout up all over the island and everyone starts to freak out, the story bounces among five or six different developing situations (for the lack of any better description). Reiner's Walt tied up to a rather large woman (Tessie O'Shea) by the Russians and trying to escape? The town drunk chasing a horse (the entire movie) so he can warn the island Paul Revere-style what's going on? Screwball is one thing. Just stupid another.
If there is any saving grace here -- however slim -- it will be the cast. Now granted, none of the performances are that good or that funny, but come on.....star power! Reiner's Walt is married to Eva Marie Saint with some decent back and forths between the veteran actors. Young Sheldon Collins plays their shrill son, Pete. Arkin is a bright spot as Rozanov, but I think it's mostly because he gets to play a straight man to all the hijinks and shenanigans. His Russian accent is pretty funny too. Brian Keith and Jonathan Winters get to ham it up as the Sheriff and his deputy, but the biggest ham is Paul Ford as the island veteran leading the hunt with his ancient sword. Also look for John Phillip Law as one of Rozanov's sailors who instantly falls in love with the Whittaker's babysitter (Andrea Dromm).
Sorry to say, but I came away vastly disappointed with this comedy. At 126 minutes, it's just too long and even tedious. Making it worse, any scene with Russian being spoken doesn't feature subtitles. I don't care if it's made-up, jokey subtitles, but put something on the screen for long dialogue scenes! The romance between Law's sailor and the babysitter is painful to watch at times too. Apologize for the somewhat shorter review than usual, but I was completely unimpressed with this comedy.
The Russians Are Coming (1966): **/****