UP AND DOWN — *** — Petr Forman, Jiri Machacek, Emilia Vasaryova; in Czech, with English subtitles; rated R (profanity, vulgarity, violence, brief sex, brief partial nudity, racial epithets, brief drugs).

If "Up and Down" had been done by a less ambitious director, it probably would be a silly slapstick comedy, something along the lines of "Three Men and a Baby. But in the hands of Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk (2000's "Divided We Fall"), a simple and familiar plot device becomes something more.

Here, it is the impetus for a sprawling comedy-drama that actually tries to say something — not just about its characters, but about the Czech Republic and what it's turned into since becoming a capitalistic society.

Much of the film's plot is spawned from one event — the discovery of a baby that appears to have been abandoned in the back of a truck used by black marketeers.

The dim-witted drivers who find the child aren't sure what to do. So their opportunistic bosses "sell" the baby to Miluska (Natasa Burger), a desperate woman whose hooligan soccer-playing boyfriend Franta (Jiri Machacek) isn't as thrilled as she is to become a parent.

Meanwhile, their landlady (Emilia Vasaryova) is dealing with her own parental inadequacies. The arrival of her son, (Petr Forman, son of filmmaker Milos Forman) from Australia means she's going to have to face her estranged, college professor husband (Jan Triska) once again.

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Co-screenwriter/director Hrebejk has some difficulty tying all the story threads together, and one of them — the complex love-hate family relationships between Martin, Vera and Ota — works considerably better than the others.

But Hrebejk also knows when to use humor to relieve tedium, and all the performances are solid. The progression from jerk to softie for Franta seems quite natural, thanks to Machacek's efforts.

The result is not a perfect movie. In fact, "Up and Down" has a few clunky moments, and some of these people and their respective situations are not as interesting as others. But the better sequences and characters more than make up for that.

"Up and Down" is rated R for occasional use of strong sexual profanity, crude sexual slang terms and racial epithets, violence (a brutal beating, as well as a couple of scuffles), a brief sex scene (overheard), brief partial male nudity, and some brief drug content (references). Running time: 108 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com