A sour little Czech village fails miserably but nobly at capitalism in the subversive social comedy “Small Town.” Helming debut from popular thesp Jan Kraus (“Seducer”) has ruffled feathers at home for its determinedly unflattering portrait of rural life. Yet ensembler is also a cockeyed valentine to the kind of resolute pluckiness in the face of adversity that is a hallmark of Czech culture and cinema. Auds properly braced for this brand of no-holds-barred humor will feed off pic’s crude energy, suggesting high-profile — and perhaps controversial — fest play, some specialized theatrical and brisk ancillary.
Using its messiest gag as a curtain-raiser, episodic story opens just before 1989’s Velvet Revolution as some local officials in the small town of Mestecko (which means “small town”) enlist one of their wives to procure a new gymnasium from a drunken apparatchik. Led by the scheming Tonda (Vlastimil Brabec), the town fathers thus prove themselves masters of the socialist scam.
With the advent of democracy, the winds of change blow fast and free. After a coalition of townsmen united under the rubric “Independent Eroticists” wins a local election, their first official act is to hire a stripper to perform for the populace — which watches stoically, applauding politely at most of the right moments.
In short order, the citizenry is trying its hand at the new economy: the square’s dress shop becomes a boutique, the local hotelier ramps up his business for traffic which never comes, and the owner of the local pub fantasizes about fleecing German tourists by packing them into a proposed dormitory behind his eatery. Everyone, it seems, has a get-rich-quick scheme that just can’t fail. Yet one by one, their dreams are shattered, victims of naive enthusiasm, over-speculation or just plain bad luck. It seems the free market economy isn’t as malleable as party functionaries.
Kraus modeled many of the characters on people he knows, and the largely no-name cast is assembled from regional theater thesps and amateurs. Resulting parade of “real” townsfolk — each possessed of a wild-eyed rapaciousness — gives pic a giddy verisimilitude. Mood is enriched by such running gags as thick smoke belching from every car, and the same couple walking their rapidly growing child as the early 1990s progress.
Even at 103 minutes, the pace lags a bit; dropping of such borderline plot threads as a scheme to boost headstones from a Jewish cemetery couldn’t hurt. Yet while much of the comedy is obvious and heavy-handed, there’s also a palpable fondness for the can-do spirit of these salt-of-the-earth types, who are eager for a share of Western-style capitalism but clueless on how to grab a piece of the action.
Tech credits are strictly functional, as befits a pic emphasizing the anecdotal over the visual. Vet musician Michael Kocab is a co-producer.