Stories about crusty old curmudgeons are a staple subgenre of our film diet. From Pixar’s animated fantasy Up to Clint Eastwood’s character-driven Gran Torino and Alexander Payne’s relationship dramedy Nebraska, we’re told that even at the 11th hour, there’s still the promise of a new start.
The Swedish film A Man Called Ove infuses the story of a lonely codger with freewheeling comic verve and quirky wisdom. It’s a record-breaking hit in Scandinavia, picked to represent Sweden in this year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar race, and it’s easy to understand why.
Ove, a retired train cleaner, sees his little housing development, and Planet Earth itself, as a place with rules to be followed. Instructions must be upheld regardless of the incompetence of new arrivals, either young or foreign. He righteously drives an old Saab, and he considers anyone with a foreign brand a dolt.
The saving grace for this Type A grumbleguts is undying love for his late wife, whose grave he visits every day, laying down flowers and telling her how much he misses her.
The story’s main characters meet cute as Ove prepares a suicide noose and a footstool, only to be interrupted when the immigrant Iranian newcomer next door drives up and knocks his mailbox flat. Ove, a peevish perfectionist known to his condominium association as the neighbor from hell, marches out of his living room to give his latest irritant a scathing comeuppance.
But instead of delivering busybody broadsides to the pregnant Parvaneh and her uninvited family, he walks into a promising new phase of life. She shows up at his door with an unexpected gift of Persian food, a neighborly gesture that happens daily in tribal Tehran but rarely in marginally connected Stockholm.
The smart, feisty young woman talks him into helping her with handyman home-repair tasks like plumbing issues, then works her way up to the generous, abnormal old fogey responsibilities of child care. Soon she is Ove’s best, and only, friend.
For the first time in a long time, he is needed. As if he himself were a frozen pipeline, the reserved man whose heart has been hardened by loss is gradually thawed by companionship.
The performance as Ove by Rolf Lassgard, a major Swedish star, is a solid character study. He plays the role not as a standard-issue codger, but a specialized piece of work. Lassgard animates the character, adding serious layers. There’s a pitch-perfect chemistry between him and Bahar Pars as the sympathetic Parvaneh. Flashbacks to happier years with his beloved late wife deliver touching moments that make you reach for a box of tissues.
Director Hannes Holm, a comedy veteran, knows how to avoid milking too much laughter. His screenplay adapts Fredrik Backman’s international bestseller with a Scandinavian balance of warmhearted charm and brooding darkness.
From its opening suicide jokes onward, this is a bittersweet view of life as gloomy but promising. It’s also a timely look into increasingly multicultural Sweden as its communities grapple with issues of tolerance and prejudice.
Granted, it’s not all that far in spirit from A Christmas Carol, transforming old Scrooge from a skinflint into as good a man as Victorian London ever knew. Thankfully, this version keeps cheap sentiment low and credible character notes high.
While it’s a long way from art, it rarely falls flat.
In Swedish with English subtitles
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Opens Oct. 28 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
A Man Called Ove
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Hannes Holm
Cast: Rolf Lassgard, Bahar Pars, Zozan Akgün
Rated: PG-13 (thematic content, some disturbing images, strong language)
Running time: 116 min.