It's not easy filling Charlie Chaplin's shoes. That's why so few dare to try. Pirouetting between existential naiveté and social commentary in a comedic performance is about as challenging as it gets. The last credible attempt was probably Roberto Benigni's misguided and inappropriately rewarded Life Is Beautiful.
Which is an apt film to compare Jiri Menzel's I Served the King of England to. Both movies attempt to infuse World War II-era atrocities with an ironic sense of whimsy, offering a humorous eulogy of sorts to their respective homelands. And both are charming, tedious and insulting in equal measure. Luckily, Menzel has the good sense to keep his comedy out of the concentration camps.
Instead, his film casually strains to tie greed, lust, war and eugenics into a winsome bow and call it profound. Filled with affecting grace notes and gentle gags, this episodic tale of a young man's dreams to become a hotel magnate is frustratingly superficial, unable to reconcile its past- and present-time storylines to deliver a message worth ruminating on.
The film opens with aging Díte (Oldrich Kaiser) as he is released from prison. He has served 15 years for an unnamed crime and is banished to a dilapidated cottage in a deserted, wooded village. There, among other outcasts and misfits, he reflects back on the fickle finger of fate that pushed him through life. Bouncing between Díte's growing desires for exiled Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), a budding intellectual and former nymphomaniac, and flashbacks to his youth, Menzel attempts to present a portrait of the man who was and the man who is.
What we quickly discover, however, is that Young Díte (Ivan Barnev) is far more likable and interesting than his senior counterpart. A rail station hot-dog seller, this diminutive everyman has the remarkable ability to fall upward, capitalizing on unexpected and often ridiculous opportunities. Think of him as the Czech version of Forrest Gump, blissfully naive and stumbling through Europe's darkest upheavals as a clueless libertine. From one service job to the next, Díte climbs the economic ladder from café server to headwaiter at Prague's luxurious Hotel Paris, accumulating cash and lovers with surprising ease. All the while he remains a wide-eyed man-child, focused on one thing: the behavior of the millionaires he so badly wants to join. Even when the machines of Hitler's war intrude, Díte is brought into the fold by his ultra-nationalistic fräulein (Julia Jentsch). It's only with the eventual rise of Communism that our little blond-haired tramp learns the futility of his materialistic dreams.
And that's the problem with Menzel's adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal's novel. So much of I Served the King of England is filled with Amelie-style flights of fancy and cinematic affectation that it's been gutted of meaningful subtext. Despite the framing device of elder Díte's self-reflection — captured literally in a room full of mirrors — there's never any indication that he's actually learned anything from his experiences. You get the sense that the Czech writer-director intended to channel the work of Ernst Lubitsch but mistakenly invoked the far shallower Benigni. He never properly balances the absurdity of his satire against the horrors of its setting.
Worse, Menzel's leering objectification of women suggests that he's become a lecherous old man. The harlots, chambermaids and prostitutes that fill Díte's world are notable mostly for their breasts, on which Menzel's camera repeatedly lingers.
Which isn't to say that the film does not have its virtues. Menzel is a master at constructing clever movie moments; there are half a dozen fastidiously choreographed scenes that show off Barnev's perfectly timed, Chaplinesque grace. And Díte's desperate attempt to deliver a sandwich to a boxcar filled with soon-to-be slaughtered Jews brings with it an unexpected sense of poignancy. The truth is, I Served the King of England boasts a long list of cinematic treats that almost con you into believing there's more on the screen than meets the eye. I guess it's a sign that the Oscar-winning Menzel has achieved a certain command over the language of film. Unfortunately, even the tastiest of chocolate Easter bunnies ends up revealing itself to be hollow in the end.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237( at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 26-27, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 28.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].