Dir. Jan Sverak. Czech Rep-UK. 104mins.
A smash hit in the Czech Republic, drawing more than 1m admissions since its March release, the latest collaboration between director Jan Sverak, his actor-director father Zdenek Sverak and British producer Eric Abraham looks poised for a career similar to previous venture Dark Blue World: strong business at home but modest international interest.
The third part of a trilogy - after Elementary School (1991), which dealt with childhood experiences; and Kolya (1996), which explored maturity at a significant moment in modern Czech history - Empties tackles old age. But it cannot help being less amusing than its predecessors.
For this outing, Sverak Sr has written himself into a comedy about a retired temperamental school teacher who, instead of sitting at home and keeping his wife company, goes out to look for a job and ends up running the returned bottles counter at his local supermarket.
Sverak's international fanbase, who perhaps hoped he would revert back to Kolya mode after Dark Blue World, may have to wait a bit longer. Empties delivers neither the necessary deprecating humour, while its star power, although potent at home, will mean much less overseas. Things will be made worse by how the cast have to struggle with a cliche-riddled script, which works hard at being both witty and meaningful but manages to be neither one nor the other.
Lacking the verve and the irreverent spirit which flowed so naturally in Kolya, and without a narrative backbone that would hold its various rickety components together, this looks more like a Czech family affair whose secret charms, whatever they are, remain hidden to outside eyes.
Josef Tkaloun (Sverak), a literature teacher frustrated by the growing generation gap between himself and his pupils, decides to make a dramatic gesture and quit his job. However, once retired, he feels useless and unneeded, something he refuses to accept. After trying a couple of jobs suited to his qualifications, he chooses to stand all day at a counter and take in empty bottles from the customers of a nearby supermarket.
Soon to be replaced by a machine that will save the management a couple of salaries, Tkaloun is nevertheless perfectly happy with his new occupation, despite his embittered wife (Kolarova), a German teacher who blames him for neglecting her systematically. There is also his introverted daughter (Vilhemova), understandably abandoned by her husband thinks Tkaloun, because of her lacklustre performance in bed.
Tkaloun soon becomes an institution in his new career, helping an old lady here, giving advice to a young man there, and is always in a good mood and high spirits. He finds a new partner (Machacek) for his daughter, sends a young stud to one of his old flames (Boudova), indulges at night in sex dreams with every female he ever fancied and by the end of the picture even pays attention to his wife after suspecting her of having a fling with one of her students.
Supposedly a comedy, Empties' overall effect is sad rather than happy. Tkaloun's clashes with his students are permeated by bitterness rather than humour, his wife's litanies sound too true-to-life to be funny and his sex fantasies are too old-fashioned and pedestrian. Putting a plastic electric kettle on a gas fire to boil water might seem a funny gag at first, but it brings to mind the impact of old age rather than the intended mirth.
Vladmir Smutny's camerawork is never less than rewarding, particularly in the last sequences, shot from a balloon flying over lovely Czech landscapes. Sverak Sr, who never leaves the screen, naturally runs the show, playing a confident man whose age belies his spirit and whose body belies his desires. Having written the script, he knows perfectly well how such a person should feel and act.
Next to him, Daniela Kolarova, as his wife, offers the most consistent and also the best developed role, the rest being limited to brief vignettes trespassing here and there into the main story.