As Ronan Keating, that perennial purveyor of pop pap, once sang: “Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it” – that’s the happy-go-lucky ethos of Men in Hope‘s Rudolf (Bolek Polívka), an ageing lothario and Prague cabbie with 138 extra-marital affairs under his belt. He even had a very movie-land former career as an international rollercoaster designer, providing him ample opportunity to cheat on his wife, and gives us a handy metaphor for his attitude towards relationships. As a man who spent his life building fairground thrill rides, he knows all about the twists, turns, ups, downs and loop-the-loops that only an adulterous lifestyle can offer.
Rudolf reasons that a well-timed affair can save a relationship. He prides himself on never getting caught in over 35 years of marriage to his wife, Marta (Simona Stašová), and she benefits too. Having a series of flings with much younger women gives him a little extra energy when it’s time to perform his husbandly duties at home.
This philosophy is met with mild disapproval by Ondřej (Jiří Macháček), Rudolf’s downcast, browbeaten son-in-law, a former accountant who runs a failing restaurant with his frosty wife Alice (Petra Hřebíčková). Their marriage is stuck in a loveless rut, but Alice wants another baby and times their intimate moments accordingly. This puts pressure on Ondřej to come up with the goods as he worries about his fertility.
Things change when Ondřej meets Rudolf’s latest date, Šarlota (Vica Kerekes), a curvy red-headed bombshell who has been doing community service as penitence for dancing naked in a fountain. She has a special way of putting a smile on a guy’s face, and despite his misgivings, Ondřej can’t help but brighten up in her presence.
Before we know it, Šarlota tracks Ondřej down to his customer-free restaurant and starts an affair with him. Cheating on his wife peps Ondra up – he suddenly starts taking pride in his business, showing a little flair in the kitchen, as well as finding a bit more va-va-voom in the bedroom. Rudolf’s philosophy seems to be paying dividends when a sudden tragic event changes his point of view…
Men in Hope is a lively sex comedy from Jiří Vejdělek, the director who made his debut with the entertaining but icky Holiday Makers. At least for a while, it seems to genuinely make a case for the positive effects of adultery. This can be a bit uncomfortable if, like me, you are from a country where attitudes towards relationships and fidelity come with a Christianity-infused sense of morality. A more permissive attitude towards adultery is a common theme in Czech cinema – see also Waiter, Scarper! – especially in comedies. Perhaps this is because having an affair lends itself to farcical elements like hiding in wardrobes or climbing out of windows half-naked when your lover’s husband comes home unexpectedly.
And here’s the thing. This attitude can seem a bit grubby or depressing in movies like Holiday Makers or Spindl, which, as I wrote recently, “depicts blokes as scoundrels and cheats who are only after one thing, modern cavemen who can’t make it through five minutes without crudely hitting on a member of the opposite sex”. However, when it comes packaged in a very enjoyable movie like Men in Hope, with a good cast on top of their game… well, it definitely becomes more digestible, if not necessarily more palatable.
The screenplay – also by Vejdělek – explores adult themes with a refreshing frankness, and at least attempts to show the argument from the women’s point of view. The wives aren’t just scowling killjoys only out to spoil the guys’ fun, like the women in Tiger Theory. We get a lengthy, moving speech from Marta as she explains to her daughter why she has put up with her husband’s affairs for so long – turns out she knew about all of them. It’s a scene that paints a picture of a long, affectionate, still loving relationship that is tinged with bitterness and regret thanks to the emotional damage caused by Rudolf’s affairs.
Then Vejdělek screws it up by saying women are simple creatures whose forgiveness can be bought easily with a designer handbag or a dinner in a swanky restaurant. His thesis posits that women benefit from the arrangement as well, so long as they don’t find out – and prefer red-blooded men who indulge in affairs rather than domesticated lapdogs anyway. He aims for balance, but the cards are heavily stacked in the men’s favour.
Polívka heads the cast in a role tailor-made for his garrulous, slightly disreputable charms. Rudolf is an energetic bon vivant, and later developments give the actor a chance to show the full range of his abilities. His natural braggadocio neatly contrasts with Macháček’s low-wattage charisma, which has evolved from the blissed-out serenity of his early roles into something more melancholy as the actor has reached middle age.
Of the women, Simona Stašová is the standout as Marta, a strong wife and mother who has come to terms with her husband’s unfaithfulness, and she delivers one standout monologue explaining her reasons and regrets. Petra Hřebíčková is fine as Ondra’s wife Alice, although we don’t get to see a softer side to her or any indication of what brought the two together in the first place – there is almost no chemistry between the actors, even during their steamier scenes together.
Then there is Kerekes as Šarlota. Kerekes is a striking screen presence and she plays the homewrecker with vivacity, but she might as well be a cartoon. She’s hot, she’s wild, she’s very available, and she sleeps in a king-sized hammock in a sweet apartment that she shares with two other hot flatmates. Hanging out with her must always be like that scene in Love Actually when the sex-starved nerd goes to America and instantly hooks up with a bunch of babes in a dive bar. We never get any inkling of who Šarlota is as a person, or what her motives are – she is there solely to brighten up the men’s lives, a manic pixie dream girl by way of Jessica Rabbit.
Visually, Men in Hope is very easy on the eye, shot in a picture-book Prague almost completely devoid of tourists, almost as if they made it during a pandemic or something. Vejdělek directs with the minimum of fuss, just letting his actors do their thing. His energetic screenplay over-eggs the farcical situations in the third act when the tragic circumstances could have taken the story in a more interesting direction. Regardless of whether you agree with its sexual politics or not, Men in Hope is an effortlessly enjoyable movie – see it and argue about its message afterwards.
Men in Hope is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.