Rating: R for nudity and sexual situations
Run Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. In Czech with English subtitles
Czech director Jirí Menzel casts a wide net in this fanciful tale of life, love and the relentless march of time.
Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) is trying to make sense of his life as he’s released from a Czech prison into a rapidly changing world. In a series of catchy flashbacks Jan’s true story is revealed; the dream of becoming a millionaire, buying a small hotel and marrying a rich bride – not necessarily in that order.
Naturally Jan (the younger played by the remarkable Ivan Barnev) starts at the bottom, peddling hot dogs at the railway station and moving to a lowly waiter position in a simple Prague café. Jan aggravates his boss but charms his patrons, in particular a wealthy scales salesman who imparts some valuable wisdom.
As the plucky Jan climbs his way up to four-star restaurant status and woos a series of spirited lovers the scenarios edge closer to fantasy than reality. Musical trees and floating currency appear “Amelie” –style, eccentric yet rich in nuance. But “King” loses its footing by toying with calculated whimsy – rich industrialists and gloriously beautiful women cavorting on the grounds of an exclusive hotel without point or profit.
On the flip side is a grand Ethiopian banquet that thrills with hedonistic charm; our intrepid hero on the sidelines garnering professional kudos with sweet-tempered aplomb.
The narrative takes another sharp turn with the onset of dramatic pre-WWII turmoil. Jan observes the pitfalls of Prague’s insufferable German occupation and complicates matters by falling for a devoted mistress of the Reich.
Barnev manages Menzel’s vacillating moods with persistent goodwill, never losing sight of his character’s inherent goodness. When Menzel wallows too deeply in the sinister undertones of an Aryan breeding experiment his Jan prevails with genial tolerance.
With a significant trim of its elegant irony “King” could be a classic, reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”. Light on dark, good on evil; pity the lack of focus in this otherwise engaging import.