There’s something annoyingly haphazard to the way Happy New York (1997) is put together – the elements of a gangster drama, a social fable and a semi-documentary never quite gel. Surprisingly, that doesn’t really stand in the way of enjoying the movie. This dark comedy of Polish immigrants’ fate in New York City seems at first to be ruthless towards its central characters, but Zaorski keeps relentlessly close to all his crippled dreamers, so that ultimately he redeems their status as caricatures and grants them real dignity.
The theme is the luring power of American dream, as experienced by those born and raised behind the iron curtain. American life is presented by Zaorski as a form of self-inflicted misery; a cruel religion that feeds on the unattainable goal of being a success. While the movie sees American mentality as an organized delusion of unlimited individualism, it’s still in awe of America’s ability of merging different ethnicities into one political organism. (The upbeat finale has an interracial crowd pledging allegiance to the U.S. after receiving citizenship.)
The humor more than once verges on the vitriolic, but Zaorski is not tempted to push things further down this path – and we’re all better off for it. Thus, even the most flamboyant highs of foolishness earn our acceptance by the end of the film.
The particular achievement of this very uneven film is that it has all the elements of a sneering fest (see Michael Moore or Katarzyna Rosłaniec for that), but it doesn’t become one. Caricature can be gentle, too, and Zaorski succeeded in puling off that particularly tricky balancing act.