The grass isn’t always greener on the other side in “Merry Christmas and a Happy New York,” an alternately funny and tragic tale of six Polish misfits in the Big Apple. Helmer Janusz Zaorski (“Mother of Kings,” “Boden Lake”) has assembled the cream of Polish actors, who bring to the screen the frenetic energy their characters need to survive in an alien country. Reality borders the absurd in Edward Redlinski’s adaptation of his novel and play, with a final, moving dream-sequence payoff that should satisfy audiences. Commercial prospects beyond Polish communities look slim, however, likely limited to TV sales.
Story is presented over four Sundays in December, culminating in a Christmas Eve tragedy that dashes the hopes of the six immigrants. Surfer (Boguslaw Linda) , a lawyer-turned-criminal, brings his kid brother, Punk (Rafal Olbrychski), to the States to help him with a drug heist. On the run from Chinatown thugs, Surfer moves in with Punk’s unlikely collection of roommates. They include Potato (Zbigniew Zamachowski, from “Three Colors: White”), who labors 16 hours a day in a meat plant to save up enough money to bring over his wife and six children; Professor (Janusz Gajos), an alcoholic who takes odd jobs, never able to pay off his debts and return to the young wife he left behind; Asbestos (Cesary Pazura), a budding entrepreneur determined to live the middle-class American dream, and his sister, Teriza (Katarzyna Figura), who works as a companion and housekeeper for a crippled middle-age man who has the hots for her.
Script by Redlinski and the director allows screen time for each character’s story, depicting the gritty reality of their lives and the powder keg of frustration, built up over years of delayed happiness and ready to ignite. Zaorski splices the four Sundays with homevideos sent to family back in Poland, rose-colored depictions of life in the land of opportunity. Teriza’s clumsy erotic video to the fiance she left behind is in hypocritical contrast to her dilemma over whether to provide voyeuristic thrills to her impotent employer.
Asbestos’ ominous cough, an occupational byproduct, mocks the flag-motif clothes he’s partial to and the all-American smile he practices in the mirror. Punk’s musical ambitions are sidelined by the dangerous game he’s unwillingly dragged into by Surfer.
But sadder still are the Professor, whose anonymous letter to the embassy prevents his wife from getting a visa, and Potato, the devout Catholic who gives his Sunday offering in hope of “a miracle.” Echoing his departure from his wife and children for better economic prospects in the U.S., his wife employs lonely “guest workers” from Central Asia who are seeking the same kind of betterment in Poland. Potato’s tearful Christmas Eve video to his family is the ridiculous and poignant peak of the film.
Technical credits are fitting for the film’s unsentimental portrait of life on the lower rungs of the city.