“The Geographer Drank His Globe Away,” Russian helmer Alexander Veledinsky’s oddly endearing third feature, chronicles the desultory adventures of alcoholic loser Victor Sluzhkin as almost every aspect of his life — work, marriage, girlfriends — slides inexorably downward. Yet thanks to Konstantin Khabensky’s charismatic, sardonic performance as Victor, even personal deterioration proves fascinating and consistently entertaining: Booze invites unpredictability, and Victor ruefully accepts the chaos he unleashes with his unfiltered utterances and drunken lapses. Feted by fests at home, Veledinsky’s snapshot of a hero and society in freefall deserves wider distribution.
Based on a bestseller by Alexander Ivanov, the film is set in the cold, gray city of Perm, on the river Kama. Vladimir Bashta’s cinematography lends the frozen stretches of town and water a suspended, silvery flatness. A sign proclaiming “Happiness Is Not Far Away,” the “Not” partly obscured, provides a fittingly contradictory motto for Veledinsky’s dourly upbeat hero. A talented biologist, Victor was apparently fired from a prestigious teaching position when his sarcastic putdown of a student was misconstrued as an ethnic slur. He talks his way into a job teaching high-school geography, a subject he freely admits he knows nothing about, and faces a classroom full of students anxious to test his limits.
Not bothering to disguise his whimsy or disinterest as anything but arbitrary exercises of power, Victor consistently flummoxes the younger generation; his students are sometimes contemptuous, but sometimes intrigued by his unpredictability. His wife, Nadja (Elena Lyadova), admits to no such ambivalence: She’s fed up with his attitude and lack of ambition.
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When his teddy-bearish school chum Budkin (Alexander Robak) moves to town, Victor practically pushes Nadya beyond her initial revulsion into an affair, despite his continued love for her. He flirts with new colleagues, old flames and current paramours, carried along more by curiosity and casual affection than by any stronger emotion. Only his fearless little daughter and Masha (Anfisa Chernykh), a fiercely intense student, seem capable of moving him beyond his self-protective, ironic detachment.
“The Geographer Drank His Globe Away” takes an unexpectedly adventurous turn when Victor loses a wager in an ill-advised card game with a student and must lead several members of the class on a field trip down the Usva River. Unaccustomed responsibility and prodigious amounts of vodka steer the outing toward the rapids, Victor losing all control. But even this sobering experience cannot daunt his curious ability to rise back up to the surface, his total lack of expectation turning out to be a strong force for survival, and maybe even a form of happiness.