Up and Down (aka Horem pádem)
(in Czech with English Subtitles)
Directed by Jan Hrebejk
This import from the Czech Republic skewers bigotry, snobbery and other human weaknesses using a three-part plot – three sets of characters whose stories eventually intersect. I’ll call the first plot thread “cops and thugs” – it centers on a comic pair of people smugglers/general hoods. After having a conversation about eating fried bat in Thailand, they find a baby left behind in the back of their truck after a running a load of illegal immigrants over the border. They can’t just take him to the cops, so what do they do? Go to their fence who arranges to sell the baby to a woman who desperately wants one but can’t conceive with her husband. That couple makes up the second thread – my favorite of the three – call it “skin head and psycho-mama.” When the real mother of the baby reports the loss, an upper middle class social worker gets involved, including her husband, a university professor and his estranged son, who returns from Australia after a long absence – “return of the son.”
The filmmakers could have expanded the “skin head and psycho-mama” thread to feature length and gotten no complaints from me. The humor hit me just right – this wacky but lovable couple are first introduced as frustrated. Franta (Jirí Machácek) can’t get a good job because of his record as a violent soccer hooligan. Mila (Natasa Burger) is crawling the walls and driving him crazier – due to her desire for a baby. One day she surprises Franta with the baby that she bought with their entire savings. He initially freaks out – for several reasons, no the least of which is the child’s dark skin. His skin head buddies will not approve. This is a great set-up for some of the funniest scenes in the film including a character called “The Colonel” (Jaroslav Dusek) – the alpha skin head. Franta and Mila soon learn that they both love the baby and it’s touching and funny at the same time to see them enter a blissful phase of their marriage – due to the baby that she bought in a sleazy pawn shop. There was even a Michael Jackson joke – which was much funnier in the context of a Czech movie.
Meanwhile, back in “return of the son”, we see a luncheon scene where a family is reunited and old grudges and social class resentment come boiling up, to great comic effect. The son, Martin (Petr Forman, real-life son of director Milos Forman) returns from Australia meeting first his lovably xenophobic mother, Vera (Emília Vásáryová), then his father, Oto (Jan Triska) along with Oto’s girlfriend of two decades, Hana (the social worker character, played by Ingrid Timková) with whom he has a daughter. But Hana was Martin’s girlfriend before hooking up with the dad, so the situation is explosive – especially given Vera’s hot temper and penchant for politically incorrect tirades. Vera is bitter about just about everything in her life but is particularly waxed about the immigrants in her low-rent apartment complex. That sets up the lunch-time fight since Hana is insulated from the immigrants due to her class status and can more easily afford to be an idealistic liberal – but that idealism gets tested later in the film, interestingly.
Director Jan Hrebejk got several things right to make this a very funny movie carrying some pretty sharp social commentary. In “cops and thugs”, he showed the criminals using the bureaucratic nature of the system against the cops but showed the cops as savvy but cynical players in the system as well. In “skin head and psycho-mama” his storytelling struck a balance which allowed me to laugh at something like a kidnapped child in the hands of two mentally unbalanced people – by making them tender, caring foster parents, in their own wacky way. In all cases, Hrebejk resisted the temptation to preach – he tried to show how things are, with plenty of human imperfection to go around. He also left the stories without typical Hollywood endings – making all three stories seem more realistic even though things got pretty silly.
Photographs are copyright Sony Pictures Classics.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.