Fun is for suckers: the common ground of Russian Doll and Woody Allen’s work

The Netflix series Russian Doll produced by Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the new Black) provides the already legendary character of Nadia Vulvokov, a 36 year old Jewish super-ironic hipster facing the absurdity of life by being stuck in a never-ending-loop. These attributes remind us of some epic protagonists of Woody Allen, the father of witty existentialism in cinema. But where does the Allenesque influence start to kick in ?

Every Woody Allen amateur can remember the character of Boris Yellnikoff (Whatever Works, 2009) complain about the banality of human beings and life itself. “The human race. They’ve had to install automatic toilets in public restrooms, because people can’t be entrusted to flush a toilet.” The Jewish intellectual that likes to refer to himself as a Novel Prize level thinker warns the spectator in the very first scene of the movie that this ain’t gonna be a feel-good movie. This is gonna be a movie that will underline the horrific absurdity and existential crisis he happens to be confronted to in everyday life.

Ten years later, in February 2019, Russian Doll, the popular series produced and directed by Natasha Lyonne, Jamie Babbit and Leslye Headland is aired on Netflix, encountering a huge success. The dramedy series happens to be a subtle reminder of Woody Allen’s work. This specific link has occurred to me as I was thinking about the series’ main character, Nadia Vulvokov. In fact, the spectator witnesses the life of Nadia Vulvokov (played by Natasha Lyonne) suddenly transformed into a never-ending loop from the very first episode on. Attending her 36th birthday party over and over again, Nadia is getting in touch with a new existential dimension: total absurdity and loneliness. It is clearly about absurdity, since no one in history has ever reported being stuck in the same day over and over again and die several times – except of Phil in Groundhog Day, of course (directed by Harold Ramis). In fact, Nadia is dying at the end of each episode (sometimes even a few times per episode) and finds herself back in the bathroom of the fancy flat in East Village, Manhattan, where her birthday party takes place. It is obviously about loneliness, well, because there seems to be nothing more isolating than going through the burden of an irrational experience without any comprehension from the outside – even worse; Nadia, similar to Phil in Groundhog Day, has absolutely no chance to make the outer world understand what she is going through: after her inevitable death, it all starts from point zero, and her friends remain unaware of the loop going on over and over again.

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The look in the mirror is the point everything starts over again after Nadia Vulvokov’s  daily death ©Netflix

This horror scenario in complete solitude and the heavy lack of answers mixed with the great irony of the series – and particularly of Nadia Vulvokov – is reminiscent of the majority of the movies by Woody Allen in many ways, even when in subtlety.

First of all, Nadia Vulvokov is Jewish. A Jewish New Yorker, more precisely, and she doesn’t leave any space for interpretation for that. So does Woody Allen with many of his protagonists: Alvy Singer, Isaac, Boris Yellnikoff, Judah Rosenthal, etc. the epic filmmaker has become a legend after showing his jewish-raised, tourmented, often very intellectual, lost main characters drawn to deep settled neurosis.

One of Nadia Vulvokov’s first steps into trying to figure out how her fate could have led her where she ended up, is to go to the synanogue with a list full of questions that need to be answered by the rabbi. In opposite to Woody Allen’s characters that mostly have given up on faith and religion (but still are very bound to their Jewish way of growing up), Vulvokov gives it a try. Her manners of speaking reveal that she may not be the conventional synagogue-goer: “But you f*ck like a Jew”, she says as she tries to convince her ex-boyfriend to join her to see the rabbi even though he was raised Catholic. Nevertheless, Vulvokov sends him to see the rabbi with the list of existential questions she had carefully prepared. Needless to say that her ex-boyfriend ends up talking to the rabbi about his own life and emotional problems, while Nadia tries to trick the receptionist into drinking the red wine on the entrance’s table. After the Jewish receptionist is done with her telifahs (hebrew prayers), Vulvokov labels the wine undrinkable and thanks her for her prayers, even though it won’t do anything, but thanks anyway. This mirroring of the human being’s bad habits and incapacity to deal with the unknown in an ironic and light way is one of Woody Allen’s main feature. Natasha Lyonne herself said in an interview with the Guardian in 2019: “I’m a real hyper-analytical stereotype of a New York, Woody Allenesque neurotic».

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Nadia Vulvokov’s friends at her never ending birthday party ©Netflix

The creator of the series Russian Doll, who was raised as an Orthodox Jewish in the Upper East Side of New York as well as in Israel, makes no secret out of her darker past struggling with heroine addiction and her near-death experiences. Nadia Vulvokov, her character in Russian Doll, loves drugs and partying, but keeps cultivating her so-called nonchalance and her great sense of humour despite all the darkness of her existence. “What is a bad person? I mean, there’s Hitler and then there’s everybody else.” In echo, Boris Yellnikoff’s tips for having fun during a New York trip: “How about the Holocaust museum?”

But it’s not only the Jewishness of both characters that make them similar. Boris Yellnikoff and Nadia Vulvokov both express their dislike for any kind of celebration days “I happen to hate New Year’s celebrations. Everybody desperate to have fun. Trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave?” A sense of  humour that persists, for which tragedy and suffering are a playground. “Fun is for suckers”, is one of Nadia Vulvokov’s first sentences in the series. Questioning oneself through the loneliness of living absurdity, assuming the darkness of life while taking it in a playful, humoristic way has been a coping mechanism in both Natasha Lyonne’s and Woody Allen’s biographies and works. Isn’t everyone entitled to an existential breakdown? asks Lyonne in an interview with the Guardian in 2017. Woody Allen demonstrates his approval in that question in at least every second film he ever made.

It’s watching both eccentric and intelligent characters with a high sense of self-irony failing in tragic but also very hilarious conditions that gives us spectators a blast, making us instantly addicted to the series of Natasha Lyonne and the legendary works of Woody Allen.

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It all happens in the East Village, Manhattan, NYC. ©Netflix

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