Septuagenarian Czech filmmaker Jirí Menzel's latest boasts the same darkly sarcastic and lyrically absurdist trademarks that fellow Czech New Wavers Milos Forman and Vera Chytilová were known for in the '60s. But I Served the King of England is hardly past its prime, and perhaps even timeless. After years in a Czech prison, grizzled everyman Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) is exiled to an abandoned German border town, where he reflects on the charmed naïveté of his youth. Flash back to the '30s, when Jan is a young, towheaded pipsqueaknow played by a sublimely likable Ivan Barnevwhose fascination with the wealthy sparks pipe dreams of becoming a millionaire. From humble beginnings selling hotdogs and working as a waiter, Jan rises through the ranks to become a hoteliera climb that parallels his own sexual awakening. Then he falls for a Hitler-supporting mädchen (Julia Jentsch), and thus begins his unwitting collaboration with the monsters who overran his country. Though the film may be visually fancifulas money rains down from the sky, a glowing halo of light shines behind a character's nogginany preconceived notion that this is yet another historical epic with some magic realism thrown in must be quashed. Menzel's whimsy is the means, not the end; do away with the clever style and you're still left with a rousing picaresque of life's beautiful-sad ironies.
Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2008