After watching the deadly serious In the Shadow recently, I decided to go back and check out one of David Ondříček’s earlier, funnier ones and was pleasantly wrong-footed by One Hand Can’t Clap. It is an offbeat crime comedy that gets steadily weirder and sillier as it goes on, tempering the zaniness with the same kind of deadpan fatalism that was such a big feature of his previous hit, Loners.
Ondříček brought many of his Loners stars and crew along for this feature, and the continuity shows – the excellent cast seem completely at ease and totally onboard with the wacky material, written by the director with his two leads, Jiří Macháček and Ivan Trojan.
Macháček plays Standa, a good-natured but gullible loser who is talked into taking the fall after he is busted smuggling a lorry load of endangered birds. After a spell in prison and keeping shtum about the other parties involved in the crime, he meets up with his former boss Zdeněk (Ivan Trojan), the sinister owner of a swish vegetarian restaurant who has heinous plans for his illicit live deliveries. Zdeněk plans to compensate Standa for his time spent behind bars but the handoff is screwed up by Ondřej (Marek Taclík), a hapless store security guard who thinks he’s some kind of badass super cop.
Ondřej and Standa have become fast friends after they were both outwitted (it doesn’t take much) while trying to catch a shoplifter, and Ondřej’s efforts to help his newfound pal out usually end up making things much, much worse. After Standa is rescued from a near-drowning by two shroom-hunting women, he is convinced that he must bring Zdeněk to justice.
After our two halfwit heroes join forces with the girls, Andrea and Martina (Kristina Lukešová and Isabela Bencová), the clueless foursome go on an undercover caper in Zdeněk’s restaurant to unravel the mystery of the illegal rare animals…
This basic plot summary will almost certainly tell you whether One Hand Can’t Clap is your thing or not, and it just gets more irreverent from there. There is also Zdeněk’s creepy family, with his control-freak wife, son and evil-eyed daughter who is almost as sociopathic as he is. Helping out the other team is Standa’s Shakespeare-spouting Dad (Czech acting legend Jan Tříska), an old-school thesp who performs in a drag show. Somewhere in between is Andrea and Martina’s dad (Vladimír Dlouhý) the suave, cynical producer of a Candid Camera-style reality show called “I’ll Catch Ya!”
The plotting is pretty uneven and the ambling pace gives the film a stoner movie vibe. Some of the jokes are pretty hit-and-miss but when they land, they land well. I’m not a massive Lol’er during movies, but it made me laugh several times, mainly due to incidental bits of business that tickled me with their quirkiness.
The best thing about One Hand Can’t Clap is the performances. All the leads are superb in comic roles, starting with Macháček, who plays Standa with the same blissed-out vacancy as in Loners, and he’s never more charming than when he is playing someone completely clueless. Taclík makes an excellent foil for Macháček’s fuzzy serenity, bringing plenty of comic energy as the deluded but ultimately fearless Ondřej. They have great chemistry together, with an endearing childishness that recalls Dumb and Dumber (just with fewer fart jokes) and some Laurel and Hardy-esque groaners –
Ondřej: Let’s synchronize our watches and meet back at the restaurant in 20 minutes.
Standa: I don’t have a watch.
Ondřej: OK, let’s say 15 minutes then.
As good as they both are, the real star of the show is Ivan Trojan as Zdeněk. At first, he plays him straight-faced, internalising the guy’s deep weirdness – extreme deadpan like someone in an Aki Kaurismäki film. He slowly builds up a range of tics and peculiar character quirks, like Zdeněk’s penchant for wearing disposable plastic gloves over his black leather strangler gloves to keep them clean. It all escalates towards a bizarre scenery-chomping rant that is both ridiculously offensive and wickedly funny. Trojan really goes all-in with this performance and he’s hilarious.
I went into this blind and not expecting much because I wasn’t a huge fan of its predecessor, which I thought was massively overrated. Unlike Loners, however, which clearly had designs on becoming a generational statement, One Hand Can’t Clap has little ambition beyond being as odd and as funny as possible. That made it a great pick for a grey and cold February day – it really cheered me up.
One Hand Can’t Clap is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.