The key subplot is the drab uniformity of Brezhnev era public architecture. This setting is explained in a humorous animated prologue, in which architects are overruled by politicians and red tape. As a result, the entire country is polluted with identical, unimaginative multistory apartment buildings that can be found in every city, town, and suburb across the former Soviet Union. These buildings are completely uniform in every detail including the door key of each apartment.
Following their annual tradition, a group of friends meet at a banya (a traditional public "sauna" bath) in Moscow to celebrate New Year's Eve. The friends all get very drunk toasting the upcoming marriage of the central male character, Zhenya Lukashin (Andrei Myagkov) to Galya (Olga Naumenko). After the bath, one of the friends, Pavlik (Aleksandr Shirvindt), has to catch a plane to Leningrad. Zhenya, on the other hand, is supposed to go home to celebrate New Year's Eve with his fiancée. Both Zhenya and Pavlik pass out. The remaining friends cannot remember which person from their group is supposed to catch the plane. They mistakenly send Zhenya on the plane instead of Pavlik.
Zhenya spends the entire flight sleeping on the shoulder of his annoyed seatmate, played by the director himself (Ryazanov) in a brief comedic cameo appearance. The seatmate helps Zhenya get off the plane in Leningrad. Zhenya wakes up in the Leningrad airport, believing he is still in Moscow. He stumbles into a taxi and, still quite drunk, gives the driver his address. It turns out that in Leningrad there is a street with the same name (3rd Builders' street), with a building at his address which looks exactly like Zhenya's. The key fits in the door of the apartment with the same number (as alluded to in the introductory narration, "...building standard apartments with standard locks"). Inside, even the furniture is nearly identical to that of Zhenya's apartment. Zhenya is too drunk to notice any minor differences, and goes to sleep.
Later, the real tenant, Nadya Shevelyova (Barbara Brylska), arrives home to find a strange man sleeping in her bed. To make matters worse, Nadya’s fiancé, Ippolit (Yuri Yakovlev), arrives before Nadya can convince Zhenya to get up and leave. Ippolit becomes furious, refuses to believe Zhenya and Nadya's explanations, and storms out. Zhenya leaves to get back to Moscow but circumstances make him return repeatedly. Nadya wants to get rid of him as soon as possible, but there are no flights to Moscow until the next morning. Additionally, Zhenya tries repeatedly to call Moscow and explain to Galya what has happened. Eventually, he does contact her, but she is furious and hangs up on his call. Ippolit also calls Nadya's apartment and hears Zhenya answer. Although Zhenya is trying to be available to receive potential calls from Galya, Ippolit also refuses to accept the truth of the situation. It seems more and more clear that Zhenya and Nadya are the only two people who understand the night's circumstances.
Thus, Zhenya and Nadya are compelled to spend New Year's Eve together. At first, they continue to treat each other with animosity, but gradually their behaviour softens and the two fall in love. In the morning, they feel that everything that has happened to them was a delusion, and they make the difficult decision to part. With a heavy heart, Zhenya returns to Moscow. Meanwhile, Nadya reconsiders everything and, deciding that she might have let her chance at happiness slip away, takes a plane to Moscow to find Zhenya. She has no difficulty finding him as their addresses are the same.Andrey Myagkov as Zhenya
Sergey Nikitin as Zhenya (singing voice)
Barbara Brylska as Nadya
Valentina Talyzina as Nadya (voice)/Valya
Alla Pugacheva as Nadya (singing voice)
Yuri Yakovlev as Ippolit
Aleksandr Shirvindt as Pavlik
Georgi Burkov as Misha
Liya Akhedzhakova as Tanya
Aleksandr Belyavskiy as Sasha
Lyubov Dobrzhanskaya as Zhenya's mother
Olga Naumenko as Galya
Gottlib Roninson as man at the airport
Eldar Ryazanov as Zhenya's fellow passenger in the plane
Lyubov Sokolova as Nadya's mother
The two consecutive episodes of The Irony of Fate were originally broadcast by the Soviet central television channel, Programme One, on 1 January 1976, at 18:00. The film was a resounding success with audiences: author Fedor Razzakov recalled that "virtually the entire country watched the show"; the number of viewers was estimated to have been about 100 million. In response to popular demand, the feature had a first re-run on 7 February. By 1978, after several further broadcasts of the picture, the accumulated number of viewers for all of the showings including the first was estimated at 250 million. A shortened 155 minute version was released to cinemas on August 16, 1976; which sold 7 million tickets. The readers of Sovetskii Ekran, the official publication of the State Committee for Cinematography, voted The Irony of Fate as the best film of 1976, and chose Andrey Myagkov as the best actor of the year. In 1977, Ryazanov, Braginsky, cinematographer Vladimir Nakhabtsev, composer Mikael Tariverdiev and actors Barbara Brylska and Myagkov were all awarded the USSR State Prize in recognition of their participation in making the film.
George Faraday commented that while it was basically a happy ending romantic comedy, The Irony of Fate had a "socially critical undertone." It could be interpreted as an "explicit commentary... On the soulless uniformity of the Soviet urban landscape". Simultaneously, however, critics accused the director of creating an escapist film which allowed the Soviet audience to turn away from the "unattractive features" of their country's reality. Ryazanov responded that "to reassure, to encourage the viewer – it is not such a sin." He rejected the claims his pictures were meant to please state authorities, stating their optimistic nature was "spontaneous" rather than "forced".
The film is widely regarded as a classic piece of Russian popular culture and is traditionally broadcast in Russia and almost all former Soviet republics every New Year's Eve (Andrew Horton and Michael Brashinsky likened its status to that held by Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life in the United States as a holiday staple). This tradition was discontinued in Ukraine in 2015 when licence holder STB decided not to broadcast the movie after the actress Valentina Talyzina was banned from entering Ukraine for "statements contradicted the interests of our national security".
A sequel, The Irony of Fate 2, was released in December 2007, becoming a box office hit and grossing over $55 million to a production budget of $5 million.