Johnny O’Reilly’s Moscow Never Sleeps aspires to more than just being an ensemble drama. It seeks to encapsulate the very spirit of that great Russian city, all its wonder, all its corruption, all its desperation, all its beauty. This may seem an odd project for O’Reilly, an Irish-born, American-educated filmmaker who worked for a few years as a journalist in Russia. I can imagine the indignant guffaws if a Irish-educated Russian tried to make a similar film about New York City. But O’Reilly doesn’t take a traditional hagiographic approach to the city of Moscow. In the proper Russian spirit, the film is largely pessimistic. But if O’Reilly doesn’t find room for hope, he finds plenty for the strength and indomitable spirits of Moscow’s citizens.
The film centers on the lives of five people from across Moscow’s socio-economic spectrum. Anton (Alexey Serebryakov) is a real estate developer with lofty ambitions on the verge of a career-defining deal. But right as it’s finalized, government bureaucrats show up demanding a takeover. Anton is faced with two options: play ball or get arrested by “tax police.” He chooses a third option, one that could rip his family apart forever. His girlfriend, wannabe singer Katya (Evgenia Brik), finds herself trapped in a love triangle she can’t escape when she runs into an old flame. Valery (Yuriy Stoyanov), an elderly movie star, gets kidnapped and paraded around town by fans like a trophy when he sneaks out of his hospice room to get a drink of vodka. Emotionally withdrawn working-class teenager Lera (Anastasiya Shalonko) finds her search for her missing father stalled after getting whisked away to an expensive nightclub by her flirty, bitchy step-sister. And finally, twentysomething Stepan (Sergei Belov) finds himself torn between filial duty and economic necessity when he sends his mute grandmother Vera (Tamara Spiricheva) to a ratty nursing home.
As the film unfolds, O’Reilly reveals the connections, both direct and coincidental, between all these characters. The effect is not unlike Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), another film that explored the unknown links between disparate strangers. But O’Reilly doesn’t share that film’s belief in a possibly conscious cosmos that forces patterns into chaos and chaos into order. His characters may have connections, but their primary one is that of a common Moscow heritage. It could almost be described as Altman-esque if not for the fact that the actors seldom, if ever, share any screen time together and largely inhabit different parts of the city.
Like many ambitious ensemble films, Moscow Never Sleeps finds trouble in juggling its plots and giving each character equal dramatic weight and screen time. Valery dominates the first half of the film while Lera and Stepan split up the second, leaving Anton and Katya with narrative scraps. The latter is so inconsequential that, despite being used prominently in the film’s advertising, we wonder why her character was in the film in the first place. But these are hardly deal-breakers. The film still manages to hold our attention, and every now and then manages a brief profundity.