Set against crime-ridden, ultra-corrupt modern-day Kiev, "The Friend of the Deceased" is a wry, highly likable fable about the vagaries of life in the former Soviet state now that the Communist bosses have been replaced by crime lords and black-market merchants. The story of a muddled intellectual who decides to commit suicide by putting out a contract on himself is rich in ironic twists and paints a complex, nuanced canvas of Ukrainian society without sacrificing its pacing or poignant human drama. It is Ukrainian helmer Viatcheslav Krichtofovitch's first pic since "Adam's Rib" in 1991 and, like his previous film, "The Friend of the Deceased" is likely to garner strong reviews and reaction on the fest circuit, and will stir up some modest arthouse action in Europe.
Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev) is a down-on-his-luck Kiev translator who is finding it increasingly difficult to make a decent living under the new capitalist system. He is desperately looking for more work, but his laid-back, morose nature is ill suited to the roughneck entrepreneurial spirit of the times.
Things are going just as badly on the home front for Anatoli. Relations are frosty with his wife, who soon walks out on him to move in with another man. By chance, Anatoli meets an old friend, and, when his pal hears the tale about his wife dumping him, the friend suggests they call up one of Kiev’s many contract killers and have the wife rubbed out.
Anatoli reluctantly agrees. When the killer calls up to ask for a photo of the intended victim, Anatoli decides to send his own snapshot rather than his wife’s. But poor old Anatoli can’t even organize his own suicide properly. He tells the killer to show up at a cafe one night, but the restaurant closes early that evening and he never runs into the murderer.
Then Anatoli meets a prostitute Lena (Tatiana Krivitskaia) with, yes, a heart of gold, and after a night with Lena, life suddenly doesn’t look quite as bleak for Anatoli. Unfortunately, it appears to be too late to call off the contract killer. So the hapless Anatoli is forced to hire another hit man to bump off the hood who is hunting him down. The new killer does manage to knife the original killer, but even that doesn’t go off without a hitch for the permanently depressed Anatoli. Looking through the dead man’s wallet, he discovers a photo of the wife and kids, and begins to feel guilty about what he’s done.
He heads out to the suburbs to visit the killer’s widow, Marina (Elena Korikova), and she almost immediately starts making romantic overtures to Anatoli, who is more than a little embarrassed by the situation.
Andrei Kourkov’s script is full of sly humor and warm, well-rounded characters, and Krichtofovitch skillfully uses the material to craft a touching, picaresque drama within a finely detailed sociological landscape.
Lazarev, who has a wonderfully expressive face, is perfect as the defeatist Anatoli, somehow managing to be both mopey and charming. Other thesps come across as true-to-life.
Lenser Vilen Kolouta, who shot Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun,” provides a nice, multifaceted portrait of Kiev, lovingly capturing the quaint old town and starkly shooting the newer suburbs. Vladimir Gronski’s jazzy score sets an appropriately melancholic mood.