By now, the dramatic roundelay should have
worn out its welcome. After all, since Arthur Schnitzler’s classic
"La Ronde" (made into a movie by Max Ophuls in the
1950s), who needs to see characters A, B, C, D, E and F, where
A sleeps with B who is married to C who has an affair with D
who is friends with E who once lived with F who has the hots
But Czech director David Ondricek has not tired of it. His latest movie, "Loners" - playing at the BAM Rose Cinemas Feb. 1-7, inaugurating the 2002 BAMcinematek schedule - takes all those pesky, lettered characters for one last ride, and the result is a satisfying, occasionally touching comic melodrama, proving there’s life in the old formula yet.
Ondricek, whose first feature "Whisper" garnered him praise as a filmmaker to watch, collaborated with compatriot Petr Zelenka on "Losers"; Zelenka’s screenplay is similar to the one for "Buttoners," which he wrote for himself to direct a few years ago. But "Buttoners" was disjointed and stiff, with none of the coherence or charm of "Losers" - presumably those are Ondricek’s contributions.
A bustling Prague at the millennium is the setting, and even though it doesn’t overtly figure in the lives of the story’s players, their malaise, confusion, and even occasional lunacy certainly owe something to the dawn of a new era.
Ondricek introduces us to the characters in pairs and larger groups before settling down to allow us to follow each and understand their relationships with each other. That’s no mean feat, especially when with persons as preciously eccentric as are these.
Hana (Jitka Schneiderova), although on the lookout for the perfect guy, keeps settling for less, particularly Peter (Sasa Rarilov), with whom she’s broken up but hopes to return. On the other hand, Peter - a disk jockey who bores his listeners with endless replays of Hana singing, laughing, etc. on tape - is getting friendly with the foreign bartender Vesna (Labina Mitevska), unaware that one person is dutifully listening to his self-pitying "All Hana, all the time" radio show.
That person is Ondrej (Ivan Trojan), a successful, married surgeon and father, who has an incurable crush on Hana, which she does not reciprocate. A friend of Ondrej’s, Robert (Mikulas Kren) is employed by a travel agency that visits the homes of ordinary Czech citizens for its Japanese bus tours. Robert talks Hana’s parents into allowing him the use of their house for one such stop-off.
Robert and Vesna meet in a bar she’s working at while he’s there with another woman. But for Vesna, a Macedonian immigrant looking for her real father, a shared interest in UFOs sparks a friendship with the stoner Jacob (Jiri Machacek), about to embark on a relationship with Hana; but the joints he’s always smoking have caused him to forget that he’s already got a girlfriend: she went off to Germany for a month, which his friends dutifully point out.
It might all sound ludicrous, but believe me, this (and much more, to be sure) plays much better onscreen than on the printed page. Ondricek’s sure sense of pacing, knowing how long to stay with each scene and how much information to give to ensure we connect the seemingly disconnected dots that inform his sextet, prevents "Loners" from straying too far afield and turning into a similarly titled fiasco, "Losers."
Ondricek and Zelenka occasionally misstep. They underline certain relationships too obviously, and one supposedly comic scene of Hana returning to her parents’ house while in a particularly foul mood, only to find a dozen Japanese tourists gathered around the dining room table happily clicking their cameras as she, mom and dad bitterly argue, is so badly conceived that it approaches contempt. Ondricek also relies much too heavily on slow fades to black, which retard the progress his characters and their stories are making.
Overall, however, "Loners" clicks as an unpretentious and humorous study of six young people who, although they really have no clue about life, continue plugging away, trying to get it right for once. Extremely well-acted from top to bottom (Jitka Schneiderova, who looks like Cynthia Nixon’s equally charming sister, is notably beguiling), David Ondricek’s film shrewdly shows how his characters keep their heads up even when everything seems to be falling apart around them.
That’s an important message to trumpet in these perilous times.
"Loners" plays Feb. 1-7 at BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place). Tickets are $9. For screening times, visit www.bam.org on the Web, or call (718) 636-4100.