Vladimir Ivanov is a saxophone player for the Moscow circus. Poor and miserable, he endures the long lines and the police breathing down his neck. His friend, Anatoly, lends him his apartment so Vladimir can be alone with his girlfriend. They will be performing in New York City, and Anatoly wishes to defect. Vladimir is approached by the KGB, who wants him to rat out his friend.
During the visit to New York, however, it is Vladimir who ends up seeking asylum. In legal limbo, he can only find low-paying jobs and has to stay with a family living in the slums. Vladimir must learn to cope in this strange land, discover what it holds in store for him, and find out whether or not he can achieve The American Dream.
"Tropes on the Hudson":
- Bang, Bang, BANG: Vladimir, shaken up after having being mugged, thinks he hears gunshots. It's Fourth Of July firecrackers.
- Big Applesauce: And the poster art even parodies the famous Saul Steinberg cover for The New Yorker seen on the trope page. Steinberg successfully sued Columbia for using his image.
- Bilingual Bonus: Many of the characters who speak Russian in this movie are played Russian actors, so much of the spoken Russian is accurately spoken.
- When Boris, the circus troupe's KGB handler for the trip to the US, is listing off places the circus people aren't allowed to visit in New York, he pronounces Greenwich Village as "Greenwich Ilyich". This is an inside joke for Russian speakers because the name "Ilyich" was used in the USSR to refer to Vladimir Lenin.
- Burger Fool: Vladimir's first American job is at McDonald's. ("Come back McSoon.")
- Celebrity Paradox: A Maria Conchita Alonso song plays on the stereo during Lucia's family's celebration after she has become an American citizen.
- Crazy Cultural Comparison
- Cultural Posturing: Lucia when she tells the Token Black guy that her people "hired Michelangelo while his people still lived in straw huts".
- Despair Event Horizon: Vlad becomes disillusioned with America, thinking the freedom is an illusion. His fellow immigrants from around the world remind him what true freedom is.
- Eagleland: A perfect example of the "mixed" flavor.Vladimir: It's a strange country.Boris: Yes. Strange and wonderful.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Vlad not only deals with the consequences of defection — his family back home is in major trouble — but also the realities of a free society (crime, bigotry, and so on), but it's all Worth It when you finally are a part of the Melting Pot.
- Fanservice: Did Maria Conchita Alonso have to have a nude scene in the bathtub? Well, she didn't have to.
- Faux Fluency: Averted — Robin Williams learned conversational Russian (and also to play the saxophone) to do this role. It's then lampshaded as Vladimir (Williams) and Anatoly (Elya Baskin) practice their English:
- Fish out of Water: Vladimir. Witherspoon jokes about it:"I can understand how the brother feels. I'm a refugee myself from Alabama."
- Freedom from Choice: Vladimir, coming from a Communist country where consumer choice is limited, has a nervous breakdown in an American grocery store when he's confronted by an innumerable amount of different kinds of coffee.
- How We Got Here: The movie starts with Vladimir meeting a newly arrived immigrant on a bus and having a chat.
- Jurisdiction Friction: Played for laughs in the standoff between the KGB agent and the Bloomie's security guard:Agent: I want to keep my comrade from making a big mistake.
Guard: I told you to back off! You're in my jurisdiction, which runs from Style Boutique to Personal Fragrances. So keep your hands off the man!
- Mistaken for Spies: "KGB?"...."No. [Gets the picture] G-A-Y."
- Mondegreen Gag: Vlad tells Lionel, a security guard, "I defect". Lionel thinks he's saying "defecate", and directs him to the men's bathroom.Lionel: Not here, you don't. There's a men's room down the hall.
- Mundane Made Awesome: Thanks to the poor quality Soviet products, Vlad is entranced with how soft American toilet paper is.
- Newscaster Cameo: Kaity Tong as an ABC-TV correspondent reports on Vladimir's defection at Bloomingdale's (Tong was an anchor and reporter with WABC-TV in New York at the time).
- Non-Ironic Clown: Anatoly. Bittersweet, though.
- Real Men Wear Pink: Being pursued by a possible CIA or KGB agent? Bad. Being pursued by a gay guy? No problem. Vladimir even tells the guy, "Good luck."
- Sex Is Good: Vladimir says this word for word to try to get Lucia to come back to his apartment.
- Switch to English: During an early scene in Russia, two characters decide to practice their English by continuing their conversation in English.