Self-described as a “non-science fiction, not quite realistic, and not strictly historical film” and a “comedy of anxieties” Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (sometimes distributed under the ridiculous title Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future) is both just like & completely unique from every zany comedy title that immediately comes to mind. It’s easy to see echoes of the film’s sense of flippant, whimsical humor in works as varied as Monty Python, Scooby-Doo, and ZAZ comedies, but at the same time I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything exactly like it before. I’m not sure how many Soviet Russian slapstick comedies the average American movie buff watches in their lifetime, but this was a first for me.
Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession is remarkable for its ability to dabble in the same visual play & artistic pranksterism as titles like the infamous, surreal Czech comedy Daisies while maintaining the accessibility of a sketch comedy show or a weekly sitcom. It’s about as fun as any crossroads between camp & high art as you’re ever likely to see and it’s one that boasts an unlikely specificity & context due to its USSR setting. Rarely is a comedy this artistically rich so recommendable for its entertainment value & basic humorous appeal to audiences who would normally turn up their noses at the idea of watching a hoity-toity foreign film outright. I could easily see it sitting among the works of folks like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson as the perfectly attractive gateway drug to drag youngsters into a life of art cinema geekery. Basically, I’m saying I greatly enjoyed this film as an adult, but really wish someone had shown it to me in high school. It would’ve saved me a lot of time in helping define & develop my own cinematic tastes.
The film’s plot is an exercise in cartoonish artificiality. A scientist/inventor risks losing the attentions of his beautiful actress wife by constantly hammering away at his latest project: a time machine. On the first, disastrous operation of his “apparatus”, the scientist opens the wall to his apartment to a hundreds-years-old castle setting and, through machinations not worth describing in detail, winds up swapping the places of his landlord, Ivan Vasilievich, with the 16th century dictator Ivan the Terrible. The landlord has a difficult time adjusting to his new digs. He’s initially mistaken for a demon by his newfound contemporaries before he disastrously assumes the throne of Ivan the Terrible in disguise (in addition to sharing a name & similarly predatory occupations, they also share an exact likeness). The “real” Ivan the Terrible, by contrast, does fairly well in the modern world. After briefly struggling with confounding inventions like recorded music, lightbulbs, and racy pin-ups, he somewhat comfortably settles into a world that still finds his demanding, violent attributes disconcertingly appealing. While the befuddled scientist struggles to return both Ivans to their proper places in time, the film bifurcates itself into being both a fish out of water comedy in modern times & a violent comedy of errors in ancient ones. It’s all very silly.
It’s difficult to describe the plot of Ivan Vassiliech without making it sound like a very thin, minimal work. Indeed, even certain gags within the film feel like something out of Benny Hill sketch or a mimicry of silent-era hamming. What’s most incredible about this film to me is in the way it distinguishes itself in the details. Its central time-bending apparatus is bizarre mess of sciency vagueness that makes Rick Moranis‘s goofy shrink ray in Honey I Shrunk the Kinds look downright realistic by comparison. Visual techniques like alternating between color and black & white film and mixing live action photography with animation heightens the film’s consistent playfulness to its own unique artform. The shattered fourth wall & movie-within-a-movie meta structure leads to inspired gags like the “real” Ivan the Terrible auditioning for a leading part in a movie about Ivan the Terrible. Ivan Vasilievich is flexible enough to both impress the idea with its meticulous, color-coded set design & to inspire guttural laughter with lines like “Please don’t put me to death, kind sir!” It’s an old-fashioned song & dance comedy that leaves enough room for genuine awe in its majestic Russian castle settings, which are used almost like a playground. Even the would-be bummer of a cop-out ending is significantly softened by the very polite concluding title card of “Ciao! Thank you for your attention.”
Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession hits that perfect sweet spot of smart, well-crafted cinema that’s also eager to please & easy to digest. As soon as the first watch I felt like it had already been in my life for decades, like a fuzzy memory triggered by a particular scent. That kind of instant familiarity is difficult to come by, especially with a product this silly & this finely tuned.