‘Russian Doll’: Netflix series relives ‘Groundhog’ scenario, smartly and darkly
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Even if I tried to avoid referencing “Groundhog Day” in reviewing the Netflix series “Russian Doll,” about four paragraphs from now you’d be thinking, “Oh, so it’s like ‘Groundhog Day’ only darker,” so let’s address the gopher in the room, why don’t we?
In the dark and funny and whip-smart and spiritually intriguing and intellectually challenging “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne is rock-star great as a New York woman named Nadia, who dies on her 36th birthday, wakes up — and dies again.
This scenario might well remind you of “Groundhog Day,” or more recently, “Happy Death Day,” the 2017 slasher film in which a young woman dies again and again and again.
And yet there’s something fresh and original and addictively great about this particular take on the theme.
Thanks in large part to a revelatory performance by Lyonne, who co-created the series with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland and co-wrote seven of the eight episodes with Headland, “Russian Doll” is a stunningly effective psychological/supernatural/WTF thriller that will stick to you like a fleece vest tossed in the dryer without benefit of a Bounce sheet.
Her perfectly expressive face framed by a tangle of beautiful red curls, Lyonne displays the pinpoint comedic timing of a Sarah Silverman or an Amy Schumer and A-list dramatic chops in her portrayal of Nadia, a genius-level coder and games designer celebrating her 36th birthday at a fabulous hipster party hosted by her friends at a beyond-cool loft in Alphabet City.
Nadia smokes a joint laced with cocaine. She picks up a stranger. She stumbles into a bodega where there’s a lot going on, heads back outside, crosses the street — and gets hit by a cab, and dies.
And then she wakes up, and the party starts all over.
Is it all a drug-fueled illusion? A dream? Or something more elusive?
Just as Bill Murray’s Phil in “Groundhog Day” wakes up again and again to the sounds of “I Got You Babe” on the clock radio, Nadia hears Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” every time she “dies” and finds herself reliving her 36th birthday party over and over. At the very least, Nadia has a superior pop tune resetting the clock every day.
(Nadia says she feels as if she’s in the David Fincher movie “The Game,” and indeed, the comparison has relevance and I’ll say no more. Curiously, she doesn’t mention “Groundhog Day.” Too obvious, right? But she DOES reference “Game of Thrones,” Andrew Dice Clay and the movies “The Dead Zone” and “Brave,” among other pop culture touchstones. Nadia rules — even when she’s reliving her death night after night.)
Also, keep an eye on Oatmeal the cat, OK?
From episode to episode, we learn more about Nadia’s history and we meet key figures in her life, from an ex-boyfriend (Yul Vazquez) to a mother figure (Elizabeth Ashley) to a sleazy womanizer (Jeremy Bobb) to a guy named Alan (Charlie Barnett), who has, shall we say, a unique understanding of what she’s experiencing.
Nadia and Alan might be partners for eternity. They might have little to do with one another. They might be…
Well. See for yourself.
At one point, Nadia says to Alan, “My new theory [about what’s happening] is it’s an incredibly dense gravitational field that’s gaining consciousness and is now deliberately f—ing with us. Kind of ‘The Black Hole’ meets ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ ”
So yes. We have to stay off our phones and hit “Pause” if we go to the bathroom because we need to pay attention to every second of every episode of “Russian Doll.”
Because every second, right up until the final frame, is worth the effort.
Available Friday on Netflix