Art-house whimsy comes in bawdy, graceful and thoroughly distinctive form in “I Served the King of England,” writer-director Jiri Menzel’s serio-confection set during a vile stretch of Czech and modern history.
The movie is a human-nature fable, a Czech-nature farce and the sort of food-and-sex romp that subtitles generally render classy. Thanks to the gravity and wit underlying its giddiness, it succeeds in all those arenas.
Best known for 1967’s “Closely Watched Trains,” Menzel has again adapted a story by Bohumil Hrabal about an innocent person experiencing extraordinary circumstances. This time, the central character is a luckier, more ambitious everyman, the scale is grand,and the escapades are frothy, outrageous and sensual.
Protagonist Jan Dite (Ivan Barnev) is a short, humbly bred semi-fool who, thanks to dumb luck and his sharp opportunist’s antennae, ascends from a frankfurter vendor in the 1930s to a waiter in various Prague establishments to millionaire hotelier by the war’s end.
Along the way, he impresses a wealthy businessman (Marian Labuda), receives advice from a dignified maitre d’ (Martin Huba), serves extravagant spreads to indulgent rich folk and has sex with oodles of women.
The picture darkens when Dite falls for Liza (Julia Jentsch), a Hitler enthusiast, and settles cluelessly into her world. After a string of absurdities and tragedies, he achieves millionairehood, only to have Czechoslovakia’s now-communist authorities imprison him for such status.
The film doesn’t have the tragic resonance of “Closely Watched Trains” or the comic oomph of Menzel’s 1990s festival pleaser “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.” It isn’t deep enough to warrant its epic scale. The lighthearted, lusty tone, given the grim history transpiring, can be problematic.
Barnev, suggesting a blond Eastern European Chaplin zips agilely through restaurant aisles, bringing charm to the role, but little dramatic heft.
Yet just when things start feeling like Forrest Gump meets Roberto Benigni, Menzel delivers due darkness (an Aryan breeding facility, whose playful depiction seems wrong, becomes a somber-toned home for amputees). Meanwhile, through the 1960s realizations of the post-prison Dite (Oldrich Kaiser), he addresses Czech, and human, culpability.
He also creates some satisfying cinematic cake. Serving up flashbacks in the style of silent movies, waiters pouring wine with the elegance and timing of dancers, and mugs full of photogenic beer, he’s an old pro freshly inspired.
The title is a line delivered by the proud maitre d’.
I Served the King of England (3 stars)
Starring: Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch, Martin Huba
Written and directed by: Jiri Menzel, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes