There’s more to Lubitsch than a touch; there’s also a universe, a human arrangement through which the touch ushers us. This universe might be slightly more reproducible than the touch. It possesses a decidedly utopian view of mankind, one where the guileless and the flimflammer can walk equally unpunished and where, aside from a few politically minded exceptions (e.g., To Be or Not to Be), there are no truly “bad” people—just capricious ones who occasionally find it difficult to get along with others. By these terms, the first half of David Grubin’s Downtown Express contains some of the most Lubitschian of filmic content in recent memory, even if it lacks the director’s most prized stylistic paradox—namely, his delicate frankness. Grubian’s utopia is a New York City brimming with working-class musicians—among them the virtuoso violinist Sasha (Philippe Quint) and the above-average busker Ramona (Nellie McKay)—who save their most unsparing competitiveness for themselves. Some of these musicians also speak with playfully thick Russian accents, a superficiality that helps the Lubitsch connection more than one would anticipate.
In the film’s opening scene, a string quartet comprised of a Russian immigrant patriarch, Vadim (Michael Cumpsty), and three younger family members runs from a gaiting policeman after entertaining commuters in a subway station with various classical pieces. Why do they run? “In Russia, we needed a permit to breath!” Vadim’s nephew Arkady (Ashley Springer) remarks after they discover that they haven’t in fact been breaking the law with their extemporaneous concerts. This confusion emboldens the first act with multicultural tension that is, delightfully, aesthetic rather then municipal. Vadim’s son Sasha attends Julliard and is prepping for a large, career-making recital; his (notably motherless) family’s reasons for emigrating and cramming into a cozy Brooklyn apartment couldn’t be more bureaucratically approved. We eventually learn that Arkady and Vadim’s visas have since expired, but this threat of deportation becomes a symbol for their reluctance to assimilate rather than a high dramatic device. When a similarly illegal friend gets caught and booted out of the country, they respond with a shrug. “At least he’s not in jail,” they reason.
As Sasha’s recital training deepens, the plot bifurcates into somewhat predictably parallel paths representing, respectively, the difficult honor of tradition and the bewilderingly independent opportunities to be found in the urban milieu. Vadim hovers over Sasha and his patient instructor, Marie (Carolyn McCormick), as they hone chamber pieces by Tchaikovsky, eventually revealing a romantic interest in the teacher. The son, meanwhile, thrusts himself into the New York underground armed with only a dopey face and an old violin, crossing paths with the subtly enticing Ramona and her jazz-pop outfit, the Downtown Express. That Sasha will fuse his classical sensibilities with the more vernacular interests of Ramona and her plugged-in bandmates is inevitable, but the film’s precise musicality—all of the actors actually play—demands that the characters earn their chemistry both onstage and off. When Sasha first “auditions” for the group unofficially, he simply rises to their stage in a club one evening and fiddles out a fierce cadenza. He smiles, expecting to be embraced with open arms, but they shoo him away, confused. It takes more than talent and ambition to penetrate a community.
The movie’s final act tries, somewhat admirably, to consolidate the plot’s myriad interpersonal conflicts—forgetting that what has held us up to this point is the doggedness of its characters’ internal struggles despite the forgiveness of their surroundings. (Lubitsch would never abandon the lightheartedness he established in his prologues, though few share the boldness required to maintain such a tone at the risk of dramatic interest.) Still, Grubin continues to suggest the sturdiness of his musical families throughout with tight, handheld camerawork that isn’t afraid of demystifying what hands can accomplish over strings and frets—and with skilled light comedy. By the end, a deserted and quite annoyed Arkady has performed as a “one-man quartet” in the subway, and members of the Downtown Express have passed at random through their rehearsal space loft, bickering with whoever happens to be present. (The finish of nearly every band-member spat is punctuated with newly arriving players asking, “What’s up?”) The peculiarities of art-community membership, more than the gawkily developing love affair between Sasha and Ramona, is the movie’s true focus. It’s a center with sweetly sounding rewards eked from the effort of callous fingers.