The jaunty, speedy, “Flight of the Bumblebee”-esque piece of orchestral music that introduces Jirí Menzel’s I Served the King of England is nearly too playful to bear. It’s also an apt prelude. The Czech writer-director’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel is, on its surface, a story about a diminutive entrepreneur who bootstrapped his way from selling hot dogs to owning a hotel in ’30s Prague. But Hrabal, whose works have often been adapted for the screen, was a satirist, and Menzel crams the life of Jan Dítĕ with enough absurdist whimsy to make Busby Berkeley’s head explode. Some of it’s charming; some of it’s tedious—and by the time the film’s main themes veer from money and girls to war and eugenics, you’ll be quite ready for this two-hour Life Is Beautiful echo to end.
I Served the King of England is told in flashbacks from the perspective of an elder Dítĕ (Oldrich Kaiser), who has just been released from prison. We don’t know what his crime was, but we do learn that Ditĕ—the name means “child”—was lucky enough to be locked up for only 14 years and nine months of his 15-year sentence. Then, as he takes a deep breath and marvels at his freedom, Dítĕ gets his bag stuck in the prison gate. Menzel may as well have added a sad-trombone cue, but it’s early, so the gentle gags are still amusing.
The ex-con is consigned to a dilapidated cottage in a deserted, wooded German village that’s home to a few other fringe members of society, including a group searching for “musical” trees. More important, though, Dítĕ becomes acquainted with Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), a virtual forest sprite who seems to exist only to giggle, give sultry stares, and let Dítĕ ogle her, all of which sparks memories of the now-creepy Czech’s enchanted youth.
Dítĕ the Younger (Ivan Barnev) is, at least, much more likable and interesting than his grizzled future self, so it makes sense that the film is likewise most enjoyable when it details Dítĕ’s past. His early days as a slippery hot dog vendor at a railroad station—he’d fumble with a customer’s change until the train was pulling away and he couldn’t give the money back—are framed as a black-and-white silent movie; there’s constant slapstick as Dítĕ serves at increasingly formal locations, including a high-end brothel and a chic Prague hotel. At every job, he learns just enough before circumstances—sometimes a big tip, but mostly spots of trouble he gets into—dictate his resignation. Dítĕ serves fat cats with ravenous appetites for food, money, and sex, and their behavior is often abominable (particularly toward women, who are frequently naked and consistently there only to pleasure the guys). But Dítĕ admires them: “Like all rich people,” he muses in voice-over, “they were as playful and merry as puppies.”
Though the fastidiously planned chaos around Dítĕ often strains the viewer’s patience (such as the forced brothel scene in which servers and prostitutes are examined in a lineup, then throw food and frolic in a pool after the “industrialists” arrive), the “perfectly piccolo” waiter himself is a more reliable source of laughs. Barnev, with poofy blond hair and saucer eyes, gives a deftly Chaplinesque performance, speaking infrequently and twirling around his customers with perfectly timed grace, even after repeated smacks to the back of the head by his superiors. Always keeping his mind on his goal of becoming a millionaire, Dítĕ approaches each position as a social study, even making a game of his observation that no matter how wealthy people are, they’ll usually scramble on their knees should a few coins be dropped near them.
The running coin-tossing joke is amusing but ultimately superficial—as is the film overall. Greed is an obvious theme, both in the excesses that Dítĕ witnesses as well as in his own ambitions. And though his dubious meal ticket after the rise of Nazism leads him to his first love, a Hitler-worshiping teacher named Liza (Julia Jentsch), Dítĕ’s attraction to her is both unbelievable and an awkwardly handled tonal shift. The elder Dítĕ reminisces to try to make sense of his life, at one point literally sitting in front of several mirrors to watch his reflection. The shot is artful—Menzel’s visual style, often employing lovely, lyrical surrealism, is the film’s most consistent strength—but empty. Dítĕ never really finds any meaning or lessons in the choices he made, and neither will the audience.