Friday, October 28, 2016

A Man Called Ove: Endearing character dramedy

A Man Called Ove (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.28.16

Rarely has a film delivered such a blend of comedy and pathos, laughter and tears.

Trust the Swedes to leaven humor with such bleak, unexpected tragedy. Must be those long winters.

Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is not a man to cross, when he
makes his morning rounds: Woe to those who leave
garden tools, bicycles, toys or anything else lying
about, in what he believes should be the pristine
grounds of the housing association he monitors.
Director/scripter Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove (pronounced ooo-vuh) is a captivating saga of love, loss, redemption, inclusion, kindness and pretty much every emotion that matters. This deceptively uncomplicated saga of a cranky retiree actually has a lot on its mind — as does the cranky retiree — and both are full of surprises.

Holm’s tender little tale was nominated for seven of Sweden’s Guldbagge Awards — their Oscars — and won three, including Best Actor and the Audience Award. The only disappointing surprise is that Holm wasn’t one of the nominees, because the film owes much of its charm to the extremely clever manner in which the narrative unfolds.

Best use of flashbacks. Ever.

Fredrik Backman’s international best-selling novel, on which this film is based, has been described as a heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. Which is accurate, but rather an understatement.

The story focuses on Ove (Rolf Lassgård), the quintessential stubborn, short-fused old man next door. He lives by himself in a good-sized, strictly regulated block community laden with rules, which we eventually learn he established himself, as former association head. No motorized vehicles on the residential pathways. No bicycles or toys left lying about. Garage doors kept closed and locked. No cigarette butts.

You get the idea.

Ove makes his “rounds” every morning before breakfast, confiscating inappropriately placed items, and trading waspish retorts with anybody foolish enough to object. A few imprudent souls argue, such as the woman with a yappy dog (a creature which, in fairness, probably deserves the fate Ove proposes). Most of the neighbors, though, ignore Ove’s waspish tirades, in some cases greeting him cheerily.

Which is interesting, and raises the appropriate questions. Indeed, it points to the story’s essential moral: First impressions can be misleading.

Ove’s other daily ritual is a visit to the grave of his beloved wife, Sonja, where he grouses further, complaining about the “id-jaughts” who’ve taken over the world.

It becomes clear, following his subsequent movements in a house still laden with his wife’s belongings, that Ove isn’t cranky out of mere anger or spite; he’s lonely and profoundly depressed, unable to move on. Nor does he wish to; wanting to rejoin Sonja in the hereafter, he’s determined to end his life. Unfortunately, his efforts are interrupted repeatedly by ... stuff.

It’s not easy to milk humor from repeated attempts at suicide, and yet that’s precisely what Holm accomplishes. It’s not unprecedented; I’m reminded of Goldie Hawn’s forlorn (and laughably ill-conceived) effort in Cactus Flower, and Bud Cort’s mock deaths in Harold and Maude. But Holm takes these acts a clever step further, employing each of Ove’s life-flashing-before-his-eyes moments as an excuse to share how he got to here from a long-ago there.

We meet Ove’s 7-year-old self — played with wide-eyed innocence by Viktor Baagoe — as a boy raised by a single father. Dad is devoted and loving, but somewhat limited when it comes to dispensing worldly wisdom; all of life is distilled to the workings of an automobile’s internal combustion engine, as refined to perfection in a Saab. Such slightness of conversational topics will come to haunt Ove, as he grows up.

Meanwhile ... things go awry.

Eventually, as a young man (now played by Filip Berg), he encounters Sonja (Ida Engvoll) under adorable, meet-cute circumstances. Despite his being shy, tongue-tied, impoverished — that’s another unexpected hiccup — and educationally limited, she finds him endearing. Engvoll warmly sells this essential plot point; we don’t doubt it for a moment.

And we come to wonder, repeatedly, what will go wrong this time. Because, as sure as the sun rises each morning, Holm is gonna puncture our newly relaxed, contented balloon with another dollop of heartbreak.

Which sounds depressing, but it truly isn’t; there’s a distinction between sadness and pointless anguish. Yes, Ove endures the trials of Job, but not out of narrative cruelty; there’s a serio-comic purpose behind his tribulations. Among other elements, Holm establishes a symbolic enemy — the “people in white shirts” — who are familiar to all of us.

They’re the soulless bureaucratic bullies who always get their way, because they can. They always have “official papers” on their side, along with agendas that blithely ignore any little people unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

That’s just one subplot among many, in this endearing dramedy.

Back in the present, Ove’s curmudgeonly routine is interrupted by a stray cat, a stray bicycle, a malfunctioning radiator belonging to former friends, and — most particularly — new neighbors, who accidentally flatten his mailbox while moving their belongings. They’re a chaotic, outgoing family: the very pregnant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), pragmatic and charitable; her husband Patrik (Tobias Almborg), rather helpless when it comes to home repairs; and their two adorable young daughters (Nelly Jamarani and Zozan Akgun).

At first blush, Ove naturally finds them intrusive and unbearable. But Parvaneh refuses to be marginalized, and she perceives that Ove, his irritable behavior notwithstanding, can be rather handy to have around. He knows things.

And herein lies the true core of Backman’s parable, executed with such sensitivity by Holm: We all need to be needed.

The entire cast is excellent, down to briefly glimpsed store attendants and association neighbors who recoil or blink helplessly when targeted by one of Ove’s tirades. But the film’s beating heart belongs to Lassgård, who makes every one of Ove’s scowls — and sniffs, snorts, finger jabs and dismissive grunts — moments of sublime comic timing. He frowns and fusses, eyes forever rolling heavenward over the utter imbecility of all in his path.

And yet, when alone, we see the despair and heartbreak that leak from every pore. As the flashbacks gradually reveal, Ove has endured more than should be required of any individual human being; the question, then, is whether his better self can be retrieved, from wherever it has gone, deep in his grief-laden soul.

The only noticeable problem: As depicted, Lassgård looks much too old to be the 59 years the story specifies. That isn’t the actor’s fault, as he is indeed the correct age; blame make-up artists Love Larson and Eva Von Bahr, who were a bit too aggressive with the age wrinkles (but, despite this, won one of the aforementioned Guldbagge Awards).

Pars, in striking contrast, is all smiles and patience, instinctively sensing hidden depths in her irascible neighbor. Parvaneh’s Persian heritage is almost incidental, since neither the film — nor Ove — makes an issue of this (except once, in a positive manner). Yet it’s an important character detail, as it reminds us anew to resist first impressions; it’s also telling for the way Pars resists any sort of cultural stereotyping. Parvaneh is simply an empathetic soul who refuses to let Ove get away with anything ... which, of course, surprises him completely.

Engvoll deftly navigates an extremely difficult role; in lesser hands, Sonja would be iconic and ludicrously perfect, but the actress makes her warm and credible. Berg, in turn, is endearing as Ove’s inhibited and tongue-tied twentysomething self; it’s joyous to see him slowly blossom, like a late-spring flower, in Sonja’s presence.

The soundtrack is a character unto itself, Gaute Storaas’ dramatic underscore balanced by familiar classical numbers — Debussy’s “Clair de lune” — and unexpected American pop tunes, such as Willy Nelson’s rendition of “Always on My Mind.” Ove’s exasperated morning rounds often are accompanied by loud, slashing orchestral strings, which add levity to the moment.

Holm’s film is irresistible, and deserves to become a hit on our shores as well. It’s the perfect time of year for such a release, and a thoughtful reminder that the best movies are those which touch hearts and minds, while teaching us something about ourselves.

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