You can’t choose your family, sure — though if there’s one lesson to be learned from the woebegone fraternal principals of “The Snake Brothers,” it’s that you can make any number of your own bad decisions to compensate. A mordantly chaotic comedy about the thin line between unconditional love and loathing, Czech director Jan Prusinovsky’s third feature gains crackle from the casting of real-life brothers Matej and Krystof Hadek as hard-up siblings — barely on opposite sides of the law — whose personal and financial troubles remain inextricably tied well into adulthood. Native auds may be more open than foreign distributors to Pusinovsky’s tart blend of antic melodrama and glum realism, but this serpentine diversion doesn’t want for bite.
Playing the younger, less mentally balanced half of the eponymous pair, Krystof Hadek (“Dark Blue World,” “Under the Skin”) was a popular recipient of the Best Actor gong at the recent Karlovy Vary fest — proving age-old awards-show wisdom that tends to favor the more visibly impaired of two equally significant characters. His win was clearly hard-earned, though older brother Matej is hardly less compelling (and has rather more screen time) as the film’s nominal straight man. What distinguishes Jaroslav Zvacek’s screenplay from countless other brotherly-love stories is that either of its characters could, in an alternatively tweaked scenario, be set up as the black-sheep figure: They’re separated not by success, but by different ways of managing failure.
“Viper” and “Cobra” sound like outgrown childhood nicknames for two thirtysomething men who don’t pose much of a threat to anyone but themselves in the small, featureless industrial town of Kralupy. Cobra (Krystof Hadek) is a feckless junkie who still lives with his inattentive mother (Jana Sulcova). Seemingly afflicted by unspecified learning disabilities, he habitually steals electronics from unmanned houses, only to be caught by local cops who know his routine all too well. When they do, it’s invariably Viper (Matej Hadek) who is called upon to wriggle his younger brother out of trouble, though his patience is waning: A heavy drinker with a history of lost jobs and failed business plans, he’s ill-equipped to hold someone else’s life together.
When former school pal Ladik (David Maj) suggesting partnering up to open a German fashion franchise, Viper accepts it as an opportunity to start afresh. Though the money is swift to roll in, it’s not long before the venture goes farcically awry, via a combination of drug-smuggling, adultery and, of course, Cobra’s light-fingered intervention. As multiple calamity-bound subplots — a crucial one involving Viper’s best friend Tomasz (Jan Hajek)and his wife Zuza (Lucie Zackova) — rotate and collide, Prusinovsky betrays his experience in episodic television. (He previously helmed the sport-based comedy series “District League,” as well as its bigscreen spinoff.) A sitcom sensibility rustles beneath the film’s surface of social-realist grime and sharp, sporadic violence, but rarely to glib effect. Even characters as ostensibly shtick-driven as the brothers’ endlessly accommodating grandmother (Vera Kubankova, wonderful) offer stray glimpses of authentic, hard-lived life.
Both Hadeks, meanwhile, give the film a core of honest good humor and complex empathy: Their carefully coordinated performances eschew banal polarities to reveal what connects the brothers, even when they most wilfully oppose each other. As such, there’s a degree of Cobra’s antsy mania reflected in Viper’s predominantly frayed aura of defeat, and vice versa. In so many stories that revolve around adult siblings, it can be hard to imagine the characters emerging from a shared upbringing, though that’s far from the case here. Supporting players are all strong, with Lucie Polisenska particularly endearing in an under-drawn part as the grounded bartender whose attentions offer Viper an extra shot at redemption.
Production values are uniformly solid and appropriately low-sheen, with production designer Jan Novotny’s faded, functional interiors establishing subtle but essential differences in age and outlook within a working-class bracket.