By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
As the star of the Czech tragicomedy I Served the King of England, Ivan Barnev resembles a blond, eastern European Roberto Benigni. He’s less grating because he’s not overexposed, and has never made the insane mistake of annoying audiences worldwide by trying to play Pinocchio at 40-plus.
I Served the King of England also shares a concept with Benigni’s Life is Beautiful: It’s a funny, even whimsical film about a man who survives tragic times, complete with Nazis, pratfalls and plenty of mugging. The broadly comedic plot follows events in the life of Jan Dite, a scheming Prague waiter who dreams of being a millionaire and survives the occupation of his country only to run smack into the fist of Communist repression.
The story begins at its end, as an older Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) is released from prison after 15 years and shipped to the country to restore a road. He recalls his ardent young adulthood with great affection, remembering the endless supply of gorgeous young women who pursued him — though honestly, Barnev is such an odd-looking fellow that the sex scenes are more goofy than erotic — and how he worked his way up to maitre d’ at Prague’s finest restaurant.
The war intervenes, of course, and Jan finds himself entangled with — and eventually married to — a Hitler-besotted German (she enjoys gazing at the Fuhrer over his shoulder when they make love). Director Jiri Menzel is careful to dole out harsh war images sparingly: We briefly see faces peering from a box car or young men staggering from a truck only to realize they will soon face a firing squad. And though the pervasive air of light-hearted irony sometimes feels incongruous, the movie is never slow or dull, thanks to a playful series of slo-mo fantasy sequences.
As the film jumps back and forth in time, Barnev’s over-the-top style clashes violently with Kaiser’s more restrained performance; the actors are distractingly different, so much so that it’s difficult to think of them as the same person. As the older Jan, Kaiser is saddled with a largely pointless side plot involving a bad girl also shipped out to the woods to reform. But the film’s final irony — that Jan finds great wealth at exactly the wrong time to possess it — is delicious, as is his discovery about what truly constitutes a contentment.
Cast: Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser
Director: Jiri Menzel
Screenwriter: Jiri Menzel. Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal.
Producer: Rudolf Biermann
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 120 minutes. Sexuality, nudity. In Czech with English subtitles.