The post-retirement antics of a cantankerous Czech horndog make for bittersweet dramedy in “Empties,” latest collaboration between “Kolya” helmer Jan Sverak and his writer-thesp dad, Zdenek. Though well on its way to becoming the most successful Czech film ever following boffo March domestic bow, less sympathetic protag and lack of moppet “awwww” factor will temper pic’s international biz; arthouses certainly won’t be vacant, neither will they overflow.
Conceived as capper in trilogy of metaphorical works about maturation that began with “The Elementary School” (childhood) and continued with mellow, Oscar-winning phenom “Kolya” (middle age), new pic was delayed over father-son disagreements on lead character’s direction; this fallout was recorded in late reels of Sverak fils’ thoughtful 2005 docu on papa, called simply “Daddy.”
Exasperated by unruliness of his charges, Czech lit teacher and natural contrarian Josef Tkaloun (Sverak pere) decides to pack it in. This leaves him stuck at home in contempo Prague with wife Eliska (Daniela Kolarova), a linguist who has tolerated Josef’s past indiscretions and general curmudgeonliness at the expense of a reservoir of resentment. Theirs is a universal love-hate relationship: at the end of the day their affection, though grudging, is present.
To escape the flat, he first decides to become a bike messenger. When that proves unfeasible for the 65-year-old grouch, he takes a position in that beer-fuelled fixture of Czech supermarkets, the bottle return department. From the vantage point his cubbyhole affords, Josef sets about speculating on and/or disrupting the lives of customers and co-workers. These include taciturn ex-military colleague “Chatter” (Pavel Landovsky), the cynical store manager (Miroslav Taborsky) and beanpole box crusher Mirek Clit (Jan Budar), who naturally prefers the nickname “Shorty.”
As the specter of an automated bottle collector looms over them, Josef tries to fix up his recently separated, religious-leaning daughter Helena (Tatiana Vilhelmova) with potty-mouthed former teaching colleague Robert (Jiri Machacek), even as his own marriage seems increasingly threatened.
It’s not difficult to suss out what set the filmmakers squabbling. Though the camera loves him, as he dispenses pithy verdicts on the state of things, Sverak the elder has written himself a character that plays as largely unsympathetic — at least to non-Czech viewers. Self-centered and manipulative, Josef is also prone to cheesy and ill-advised train-themed fantasy sequences involving headmistress Ptackova (Nela Boudova). Climactic payoff of this conceit, though muted, underscores Josef’s unrepentant nature.
Still, pic has clearly touched a local nerve about the challenge of relationships against the backdrop of unwanted societal change. This universality is what minted “Kolya” as a hit; the big question here involves international auds’ receptiveness to a more distinctly conflicted Czech spin on shared issues.
Under Sverak’s shrewdly unforced direction, other thesps are natural and appealing. Tech palette is rich, led by detailed work of Sverak’s regular prod designer, Jan Vlasak, who has a small part as Eliska’s smitten German student. Co-producer Eric Abraham cites March 2007 B.O. cume of $3.5 million as richest in Czech film history; pic swiped crown from Jiri Menzel’s “I Served the King of England.”