As the cantankerous title character in A Man Called Ove, Rolf Lassgård never panders to audience sympathy — which is more than can be said of the film itself. The comic drama has plenty going for it, beginning with Lassgård’s performance as a widower who thinks he’s determined to off himself and Bahar Pars’ turn as the neighbor who cracks his irascible shell. But while writer-director Hannes Holm, adapting a popular novel by Fredrik Backman, orchestrates some fine chords blending humor and pathos, he finally doesn’t trust viewers to draw their own conclusions. Starting out with a bracing, off-kilter wryness, Ove moves steadily, and disappointingly, toward the crowd-pleasing center.
Sweden’s official Oscar submission, a hit on home turf, will resonate stateside with filmgoers who can overlook the story’s obvious heartstring tugs to make an emotional connection with its protagonist.
Winningly droll and affecting until it pushes way too hard.
The opening sequence is a perfect example of what Holm gets right. To the artificial cheer of Muzak, Ove haggles with a store cashier over the price of cut flowers, unhappy to learn that his two-for-one coupon can’t be applied to the purchase of just a single bouquet. It turns out that he’s no mere crotchety cheapskate but a grieving husband: The roses are for his wife’s grave, the one place he seems comfortable and quasi-chatty. Graveside, he assures her that this day’s offering of two bunches of blossoms is “a one-off.”
A more serious affront to Ove’s sense of justice arrives when he loses his job. Holm and DP Göran Hallberg smartly frame the moment to emphasize the way a couple of 30ish managers shield themselves with their laptop screens while delivering the news. For Ove, it’s just the latest in a lifetime of bad experiences with “whiteshirts” — his disdainful term for heartless bureaucrats — as spelled out in the movie’s overloaded series of flashbacks (with Filip Berg and Viktor Baagoe playing younger versions of Ove).
Unemployment gives Ove more time to police his cul-de-sac and enforce homeowners’ association rules, taking notes on infractions and suffering no fools or misplaced bicycles. It also gives him time to try to kill himself, something he does repeatedly because each suicide attempt is thwarted by a neighborly interruption. That this malcontent leaves the curtains open during his first go-round with the noose says everything we need to know about Ove’s continued interest in the outside world.
Then there’s his response to Parveneh (Pars), the irrepressibly friendly but never insipidly chirpy new neighbor. Ove’s exasperation over the home-repair cluelessness of her husband (Tobias Almborg) doesn’t faze her. Her offerings of Persian food, her demands for driving lessons and her sincere curiosity about Ove all hit a neglected nerve, his initial protests notwithstanding. It’s too bad that people need to be reminded that even antisocial oldsters have experienced joy and sorrow, and the movie’s sympathetic look at grumpy-old-man syndrome is both droll and affecting in the present-day action, especially as viewed through the prism of his nascent friendship with Parveneh. But Holm assumes the audience requires ample evidence of Ove’s goodness, and the film loses its footing in backstory melodrama.
The director shamelessly teases out the story of Ove’s marriage to Sonja, whose death, it’s gradually disclosed, occurred six months earlier. She’s played by Ida Engvoll, who provides a lovely energy but is stranded by the screenplay in the realm of the two-dimensional romantic symbol. Through the mechanical device of flashbacks that tend to arise when Ove has a rope around his neck, a shotgun in his mouth or a hose connected to his car’s exhaust, we see the couple’s courtship and marriage and await the big reveal of the telegraphed tragedy that befalls them.
All the flashbacks have a warm, evocative glow, but only Ove’s memories of his dad (Stefan Gödicke) are truly affecting and revelatory. Glimpses of his evolving friendship with neighbors Rune (Börje Lundberg) and Anita (Chatarina Larsson) mainly revolve around a Saab-vs.-Volvo joke that feels played out by its final punchline. Rune’s physical disabilities are occasion for a subplot involving a cartoonish villain — yet another whiteshirt — that’s too exaggerated to hit its intended mark.
Cartoonish villain aside, the performances click. Lassgård, whose credits include After the Wedding and Under the Sun, inhabits the role with a commanding, irked strut and a pained but always engaged gaze. Both the actor and his aging makeup were honored at Sweden’s top film awards; together, they’re convincing, though Ove seems older than the 59 indicated in the English subtitles.
The playful martial surge of Gaute Storaas’ orchestral score suits the character’s martinet maneuvers. But like the movie as a whole, the music eventually gives way to more platitudinous strains, driving home the lesson that “no one can do it alone.”
Distributor: Music Box Films
Production company: Tre Vänner
Cast: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ingrid Engvoll, Tobias Almborg, Klas Wiljergård, Chatarina Larsson, Börje Lundberg, Stefan Gödicke, Anna-Lena Bergelin, Simeon Lindgren, Maja Rung, Fredrik Evers
Director-screenwriter: Hannes Holm
Based on the novel by: Fredrik Backman
Producers: Annica Bellander, Nicklas Wikström Nicastro
Executive producers: Fredrik Wikström Nicastro, Michael Hjort
Director of photography: Göran Hallberg
Production designer: Jan-Olof Agren
Costume designer: Camilla Lindblom
Editor: Fredrik Morheden
Composer: Gaute Storaas
Makeup: Eva Von Bahr, Love Larson
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes