In a recent piece for the BBC, Emma Jones questioned the exportability of Scandinavian comedies. Acknowledging the debt that our Netflix and Kindle queues alike owe to works of Nordic noir ranging from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (as well as its sequels and filmed adaptations) to acclaimed television series such as Wallander and The Killing, Jones wondered if it was possible that the dark sensibility that has made blockbusters of the aforementioned novels and films is simply incompatible with what viewers outside of Scandinavia want or expect from a comedy. Recent films such as Rams and Men and Chicken, despite acclaim and popularity in their home countries, have failed to make much of a splash abroad. One film Jones fails to mention, however, is A Man Called Ove, Sweden’s official submission for the 2017 Academy Awards; this is an unfortunate omission, as Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s international bestseller is highly illustrative of the divide between Hollywood and Scandinavian sensibilities even as it borrows liberally from the former’s aesthetic toolkit.
The titular man called Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is a cranky 59 year old who lives by himself in a docile and well mannered gated community. Recently widowed and without children, Ove is forced to retire from his railway job after forty three years of service; digitization and automation has simply rendered him redundant. This leaves him with more time to pursue his true passion: being a world class pedant and upholder of order and decency, or, as Anders (Fredrik Evers), his community’s chairman of the board calls it, “playing policeman.” Ove was once chairman himself, a responsibility he treated with great solemnity and dedication, so much so that he continues to conduct his security and standards rounds every morning, even after being voted off of the board in what he refers to as a “coup” by his onetime friend Rune (Börje Lundberg).
Played marvelously by Lassgård, Ove is a hard working, decent, and dignified sort, taught by his stoic father that maintaining a clean home and a tuned engine is life’s sole purpose and greatest reward. He considers himself objective and upstanding and believes others should follow suit; he is the type of person who would lose a friend over his choice of automobile. (Rune’s purchase of a BMW is indeed the final blasphemous affront that sends the avowed Saab enthusiast over the edge after years of begrudgingly tolerating Rune’s Volvos.) He has inherited the buttoned up, conservative ideals of the generation before his own and, through a serious of unfortunate events, was forced to assume the mantle of adulthood before he was fully prepared to do so. As such, Ove has always felt socially discomfited and emotionally adrift. It was only his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) who gave him direction, purpose, and the welcoming warmth of compassion that allowed him to open up and to find happiness and satisfaction. Without her, he again feels alone, and his righteousness has calcified into rage; he stomps around his community, notepad in hand, to issue stern reprobations and to find, in “the rules,” some semblance of the control which he feels has been wrested from him by cruel circumstance. “If what they say is true,” he posits, “that fate is the sum total of our own stupidity, then I think what altered my fate was a result of the stupidity of my neighbors.”
He’s not that far off the mark. Much of the humor in the first half of the film revolves around Ove’s attempts to kill himself, which are repeatedly thwarted by the intrusion of his neighbors, particularly the young couple Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) and Patrik (Tobias Almborg) who have just moved in with their two young daughters. It is in this subplot, wherein Parvaneh and her daughters break through and soften Ove’s hardened exterior, functioning as surrogates for the child and grandchildren he never had, that A Man Called Ove becomes most like a Hollywood tearjerker — and make no mistake, the film lapses into maudlin sentimentality that can feel both manipulative and predictable — but rarely if ever would you find a mainstream American comedy that features five suicide attempts in the first forty minutes, and almost as many onscreen deaths.
A Man Called Ove has none of the sardonic irony of Harold and Maude, nor is it a hyperbolic suburban fantasia like Better Off Dead; even if his long list of personal tragedies makes him something like the Forrest Gump of familial mourning, Ove’s grief is rooted in real loss, his pain in real suffering, and while that degree of darkness may not usually accompany this type of filmmaking, it makes the tears feel at least somewhat more genuine. Frank Capra understood and demonstrated this with It’s a Wonderful Life, but a closer corollary may be a pair of Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances, from the latter part of his career. Ove, in fact, shares much in common with both As Good as it Gets’s Melvin Udall and About Schmidt’s Warren Schmidt, and while the film’s unsubtle touch is more akin to James L. Brooks’s multiple Oscar winner, its tired, existential lament, coupled with a faith in our ability to be beacons for others despite our own darkness, significantly recalls Alexander Payne’s less heralded masterpiece.
When Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of The Light Between Oceans opened to tepid reviews and lackluster box office earlier this year, his wife Shannon Plumb wrote an editorial bemoaning the death of the romance genre and the inability of critics to watch the films uncynically, with their hearts rather than their heads. One may or may not agree with Plumb’s thesis (and indeed, it addresses a number of questionable binaries — high vs. low art, men’s vs. women’s pictures, etc. — and opens a discussion of taste that is at least partially subjective and far too great for its own scope, let alone that of this review) but it’s helpful to consider that a film can be qualified as being either for the head or for the heart. A Man Called Ove is unabashedly the latter, but it involves a pathos and a technical skill which is too great to overlook, and indeed you may find yourself tearing up despite your total cognizance of the manipulation at work. As a film, it may be more engineered than crafted, but like Ove’s beloved Saab, it rides beautifully and reliably.