Someday an enterprising film-festival programmer will stage a retrospective of “The Full Monty” remakes retooled for nations with bleak economies and downtrodden citizens who worship at the altar of American popular culture. When that day dawns, Croatia’s foreign-language film submission for this year’s Academy Awards should float nicely near the top of the list. Mind you, it has an edge going in: “Cowboys” is about a bunch of provincial no-hopers who stage an American Western as a musical, and just hearing the name Johnny Nebraska uttered with a Croatian accent is pretty entertaining.
Set in a down-at-heel industrial town as deprived of culture as it is of working electricity and meaningful employment, the movie niftily blends social drama with absurdist comedy, and without stepping too hard on the pedal of canned emotion. Indeed, the dozen or so of us who felt emotionally railroaded by “The Full Monty” may even prefer the dark bite and digressive charm of this deadpan celebration of fulfillment at the butt end of a post-Soviet world.
After a nasty battle with cancer, a successful stage director returns to his decrepit home town — he’s not sure why — and immediately gets suckered into directing an amateur show for the stage. Five hopeless cases show up to audition, among them a mama’s-boy postal worker, a deeply closeted gay guy, a rough type who’s either a gypsy or a Serb or both, and a young woman who’s either soft in the head or a performance artist.
Resolving for once to work with the materials at hand, the director cobbles together a de facto musical you might call avant-garde (vultures and tap dancing are involved) with this ill-assorted crew. Even as his own troubles grow to the point of crisis, the dramaturg finds himself warming to what may turn out to be the defining project of his life, and those of his performers.
“Cowboys” is a tad too long, and its pacing sags from time to time in a dialogue-heavy middle that may be tough on Western moviegoers who aren’t in on the regional in-jokes. Mostly, though, the script by director Tomislav Mrsic switches nimbly from savagely funny to tender and back, nicely sustained by an astutely straight-faced ensemble. Cinematographer Predrag Dubravcic ably evokes both the drab interiors and the dirty-old-town romance of a bleak industrial landscape.
Skillfully juggling tone and ambience, Mrsic pokes a few sly digs at the region’s enduring ethnic conflicts while affectionately goosing a genre that he also, to judge from the soundtrack, clearly loves as much as he does the people and the place his movie lampoons. “Cowboys” ends with just enough sadness and goofy delight to underscore, without piling on, its conviction that in an absurd, unjust world, redemption lies precisely in the crazy, quixotic gesture.