In his first purely theatrical feature since the 1999 cult favorite “Buttoners,” Czech helmer Petr Zelenka hews closely to his distinctive brand of eccentric humanism via a put-upon Everyman who struggles to understand the world in droll relationship comedy “Wrong Side Up.” Fest programmers will flip for this item, and positive word-of-mouth should garner limited arthouse play for a low-key and determinedly idiosyncratic comedy that will find appreciative audiences on the tube and in homevid.
A morose freight worker at Prague’s international airport, Peter Hanek (Ivan Trojan) still pines for love Jana (Zuzana Sulajova) after six months, even as his stodgy father David (Miroslav Krobot) finds escape from Peter’s flighty mother (Nina Diviskova) via a close friendship with free-spirited sculptor Sylvia (Petra Lustigova). As these dramas are playing out, Peter’s being paid on the side to watch new neighbors Alice (Zuzana Bydzovska) and Jerry (Jiri Bartoska) have sex. “Hey, it’s a job like any other,” he tells Jana.
Adapted from Zelenka’s immensely popular 2001 stage play “Tales of Common Insanity” and retaining that original Czech title, pic’s trip from stage to screen offers an interesting glimpse into Zelenka’s working methods. A play full of wryly comic despair becomes a movie of mellow eccentricities and cautious hope, suggesting the filmmaker understands and embraces the differences between his domestic audience and an international one.
To this end, the helmer has stuffed the screenplay with odd character traits and loopy behavior that enhance but never swamp the drama. For instance, David’s boss (Karel Hermanek) keeps a list of items his wife has thrown at him, and seems to be falling in love with a department store mannequin; David, who used to narrate government newsreels, parlays this talent into art world success with Sylvia’s help; Jana, about to marry the far more conventional Alex (Jiri Babek), confesses to him and Peter the odd way she chose both men as lovers.
Cumulative effect is of a certain wonderment at a strange world filled with barely controllable mechanized marvels and cryptic romantic entanglements.
Seemingly inspired by a poster of Buster Keaton hanging in Peter’s bathroom, thesps bring a successful deadpan wit to their perfs. Chief among them is Krobot, whose dreamy tension summons up images of a heavily sedated Eli Wallach. Vet Bartoska has a very funny monologue regarding the dangers of intellectual property, while Sulajova, a decade after playing the wild young girl with mysterious powers in Martin Sulik’s thoughtful Slovak drama “The Garden,” retains an appeal at once ethereal and diamond-hard.
Tech credits are pro, with visual flourishes taking a back seat to the comedy. As with his previous features, “Mnaga: Happy End,” “Buttoners” and “The Year of the Devil,” helmer goes for the more democratic credit, “a film by Petr Zelenka and his friends.”