'Up, Down' a Wounded Comedy; Prague Social Collisions Loom between Residents, Immigrants

Article excerpt

Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"Up and Down," exclusively at the Avalon, is a scathing diagnostic comedy about social pathologies in contemporary Prague. The symptoms, apportioned between downscale and upscale characters, are observed on parallel plot tracks that crisscross in late episodes. Dread and mockery dominate the prognosis of Czech director Jan Hrebejk and his screenwriting collaborator, Petr Jarchovsky.

This distinctive partnership surfaced five years ago in "Divided We Fall," an improbably clever and bracing comedy set in the closing months of the Nazi occupation. It was tantamount to discovering an unknown Czech counterpart to Ernst Lubitsch's remarkable 1942 satire set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, "To Be or Not to Be."

From the Hrebejk-Jarchovsky perspective, things look dodgy in Old Mitteleuropa. Scurvy criminal elements, inscrutable illegal immigrants and native holdovers nursing lingering wounds and resentments dating to the Soviet period may be on a collision course. The title is in part a geographic jest: A peaceful Brisbane beckons one prodigal son from Prague, where it appears that "Condemned" and "No Trespassing" signs will become the defensive rage.

The conception is bolder than Mr. Hrebejk can ultimately finesse. Sequences that ought to be outrageously effective misfire after elaborate buildups. The most conspicuous example is an embittered reunion dinner among the upscale bunch. It has brilliant moments, especially for Emilia Vasaryova as a caustic, discarded wife named Vera. She's a great loose cannon, but the filmmakers bungle the climactic moment; their appetite for conflict requires better storage capacity and staying power.

The movie begins with a pair of truckers absorbed in a conversation about repulsive things to eat. They precipitate one of the plots by driving away so hurriedly from the scene of a human smuggling operation that a tiny passenger remains onboard: a baby belonging to Indian immigrants unloaded along the Czech-Slovak border. …