A social comedy with bite, Jan Hrebejk's ''Up and Down" looks at the new world disorder through a handful of Prague-ites placed slyly up and down the class ladder. The film bears a resemblance to such multicharacter dramas as Robert Altman's ''Short Cuts" and Paul Thomas Anderson's ''Magnolia" -- like them, it's a portrait of a society straining at the seams -- but it manages the neat trick of being both charming and bilious, and its tart points about racism translate excellently into English.
The film opens with two raffish truck drivers (Zdenek Suchy and Jan Budar) engaging in ''Pulp Fiction"-style banter before revealing their human cargo: illegal immigrants from India. Through a fluke, an infant is left behind, and the smugglers, after a bit of argument, decide to sell the baby on the black market. Life may not exactly be cheap on the post-Cold War frontier, but prices do fluctuate.
Elsewhere in the city, an upper-class professor named Ota (Jan Triska) is ailing, and his much younger girlfriend, Hana (Ingrid Timkova), calls in the estranged family: wife Vera (Emilia Vasaryova), a translator with a taste for liquor and a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (and enjoying it), and grown son Martin (Petr Forman, son of director Milos), a kindhearted surfer who fled to Australia decades before and hasn't spoken to Ota since. One catch: Hana is Martin's old girlfriend.
If the smugglers and a pair of hard-luck muggers offer brutal slapstick and the professor's clan provides bitter drawing-room comedy, domestic farce is the province of lower-middle-class Mila (Natasa Burger) and Franta (Jiri Machacek). Franta's a former soccer thug trying to mend his ways -- he works as a security guard -- while Mila pines for a baby. They can't adopt (Franta's an ex-con) and Mila learns the hard way not to steal a child, so the stray immigrant child seems to Mila an acceptable middle ground. Franta is horrified, not least because the baby's dark skin means his hooligan mentor the Colonel (Jaroslav Dusek) will pitch a fit.
This is where the marbles lie before Hrebejk (''Divided We Fall") and his longtime writing partner Petr Jarchovsky give the board a shake, raising racial attitudes and a lot of dust. As in the rest of Europe -- as across the globe -- social complexions are changing, and the most tolerant people are revealed to harbor the most hidebound opinions. Vera may earn audience sympathy as the dumped spouse of an ambitious man, but her vicious asides about her gypsy neighbors hint at more than one reason for her son's emigration.
Franta may be a former skinhead, but he's a gentle, endearing giant trying hard to do the right thing. Only the Colonel is a cartoon in ''Up and Down," and he's consequently easy to ridicule. The rest of us are making it up as we go along.
Hrebejk doesn't tie all the loose ends together in a neat bow, the way an American director might. When Franta and Martin finally do come face-to-face, what seems like an unavoidable explosion turns into a small, satisfying pop.
This is a film of tiny ironies, expansive performances, and occasional grace notes -- the unexpected appearance of Vaclav Havel counts as all three. The former Czech president plays himself in a brief scene with a pair of Burmese dissidents, who later show amusing pluck in an encounter with the muggers. The great, unstated joke at the heart of ''Up and Down" is that only those who think New Europe means ''every man for himself" end up missing out on the future.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.