Come to laugh at yourself,” urge the ads for “Loners,” a dryly funny and benevolently shrewd second feature from director David Ondricek. Pic eschews older generation elements of writer Petr Zelenka’s recent fest fave “Buttoners” (which he also directed) in favor of a more fluid and hard-nosed brand of millennial malaise among an interconnected set of well-to-do twentysomethings who bounce off each other in contempo Prague. Perhaps because of this, Czechs have heeded the advice, as item’s been a hit in the capital since its April bow, will be popular at fests and could score theatrically with disenfranchised young people hip to pic’s universal ironies and up for the subtitles.
Seven young denizens of the Czech capital — call them the Prazak Nation, after the Czech term for those who live in Prague — are blindly searching for The Meaning of It All. Hustler Robert (Miki Kren) works for a travel agency arranging authentic home visits for camera-laden Japanese tourists whilst putting the moves on bartender Vesna (Labina Mitevska), a recent Macedonian émigré in search of her father.
Hanka (Jitka Schneiderova), whom Robert tricks into separating from intense disc jockey b.f. Peter (Sasa Rasilov), hooks up with philosophizing stoner Jacob (Jiri Machacek) while being ineptly stalked by increasingly agitated neurosurgeon Ondrej (Ivan Trojan).
Hanka’s ex, Ondrej, has forsaken his twin daughters and workaholic wife Lenka (Dana Sedlakova) — Robert’s colleague, who is herself helping to arrange a group of visitors to the home of Hanka’s temperamentally mismatched parents (Hana Maciuchova, Frantisek Nemec). Occasional visual punctuation of bubbles in a lava lamp echo the lazy, amoebae-like way characters coalesce and disengage before, perhaps inevitably, ending up pretty much right back where they started.
Strongly reminiscent of such recent ensemble pics as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” and Jasmin Dizdar’s “Beautiful People,” “Loners” also invites the inevitable comparisons to Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” and Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.”
Deliberate and exaggerated complexity of story isn’t lost on Ondricek, who confessed to one interviewer that he had to “write down the names of the characters to remember who was who.” Yet for all its twists and turns pic is almost defiantly superficial, trading in broad caricatures and interpersonal moral dilemmas instead of current events and culture-specific barbs.
The laid-back, earthy whimsy of such 1960s Czech New Wave titles as “Loves of a Blonde” and “Firemen’s Ball” (both shot by helmer Ondricek’s father, Miroslav, cameraman on many of Milos Forman’s films) has been replaced by a glib fatalism. Thus, characters count their money and brood over more material things (Robert likes to turn his digital camera on women he has upset), while seemingly oblivious to the divine chance that throws them together and the opportunities those linkages provide.
Uniformly capable and appealing perfs are led by non-pro Machacek’s Jacob, a 29-year-old spiky-haired Czech version of Sean Penn’s Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (also written by Crowe), so perpetually and serenely stoned that it slips his mind he’s already got a g.f. and he doesn’t recognize the Czech national anthem (“I haven’t heard the instrumental version lately so I forgot it”).
Mitevska, whose credits include “Before the Rain,” “Underground” and “Ulysses’ Gaze,” is beguilingly wide-eyed as the newcomer (who tells everyone she’s in search of UFOs so as not to appear too normal), while Trojan brings an eccentric intensity to Ondrej, who goes to absurd lengths to break with his past.
Tech credits are fluid, with Radek Hanak’s set design displaying a Prague at once identifiable and sleekly new, while the music of Jan P. Muchow (who can be glimpsed playing guitar in a club band) quickens the pulse of the grand old city.