A Man Called Ove
2016, PG-13, 116 min. Directed by Hannes Holm. Starring Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll, Zozan Akgün, Tobias Almborg, Klas Wiljergård.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 4, 2016
The cranky curmudgeon in this Swedish import walks around with the puckered face of a man who’s seemingly spent a lifetime sucking on lemons. He’s the quintessential sourpuss. Each morning, Ove (Lassgård) authoritatively patrols the sidewalks and alleys of his modest residential complex inspecting for infractions (the sight of an abandoned cigarette butt or the discovery of recyclables in the wrong receptacle incense him) with the single-mindedness of an Inspector Javert. Short-tempered and confrontational, he unleashes his acid tongue on his scofflaw neighbors – and anyone else who pisses him off – with the rage of a misanthrope. You have to begrudgingly admire the guy for consistency: He’s an equal opportunity asshole.
Of course, there’s more than what initially meets the eye in A Man Called Ove, which is based on the wry 2012 debut novel by Swedish blogger Fredrick Backman. In the tradition of grumpy old men beginning with Ebenezer Scrooge, you predictably know that beneath this 59-year-old’s tart exterior is a lonely soul embittered by the tragedies that have punctuated his life, most recently the death of his adored wife, Sonja (Engvoll), to cancer. Visiting her gravesite faithfully, he promises to join her in the afterlife, but his unsuccessful efforts to kill himself in a series of comic suicidus interruptus attempts (the ringing doorbell is straight from Crimes of the Heart) only infuriate him further. When one such attempt lands him on the floor after a makeshift noose breaks mid-swing from the living room ceiling, Ove angrily returns the frayed rope to the hardware store and berates an uncomprehending clerk for her stupidity in selling an inferior product.
A Man Called Ove deftly incorporates the seminal moments of its titular character’s past in a series of flashbacks that inform, rather than intrude upon, the present. (In the film, these sequences cleverly occur as Ove’s brain is being slowly deprived of oxygen during one of his failed shots to end it all.) The fluid juxtaposition of the present-day and younger versions of the character is impressive, given how other similarly structured films have clunked along with the expository grace of two left feet. While Berg shines as the callow younger version of Ove in those scenes – his goodness and naivete are heartbreaking – it’s the effervescent Engvoll as the beloved Sonja that truly brings the past to life. It’s no wonder the man loved this wonderful person and now misses her so much; she had a smile so generous it could capture a thousand hearts. As the film proceeds, Ove’s blossoming friendship with his no-nonsense pregnant neighbor (an engagingly forthright Pars) and his increasingly noncombative social interactions with others slowly re-humanize him. (There’s a stray cat involved, too.) As this anticipated transformation occurs, however, something unfortunate happens: The movie starts to unravel like that blue cord indignantly tossed on the store counter. The last ten minutes or so are heartwarming to the point of schmaltz. Even the adept Lassgård, as the old fogey version of Ove, can’t make this increasingly feel-good schtick stick. You can just imagine him shaking his head with disgust at this betrayal. “Idiots!” he would steadfastly proclaim. “Nothing but idiots!”