A Man Called Ove, a film about an old widower learning to accept the world (and the world learning to accept him back) fluctuates seamlessly between black comedy and domestic drama, touting laughs and tears in equal exchange. Formulating off life & death’s uneasy balance, death as an unalterable and inevitable state, and life as infinitely more surprising and unpredictable, A Man Called Ove seems destined to reach for the star but settles with its head in the clouds, preferring terrestrial comfort over celestial exultance. The old man is Ove (Rolf Lassgård), a 59-year-old curmudgeon and widower, ruling over the tenants of his neighborhood (an arraignment of interjoined homes) with an iron fist. When he’s not strolling imperiously about the neighborhood, enforcing his version of paradise, Ove sits at home quietly and wistfully grieving over the recent death of his beloved wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), only realizing now the awkward strains of falling out of touch with the world.
A Man Called Ove is an existential melodrama with a passionate embrace and aching sweet tooth. It’s a playful and vibrant film (full of rich color grades & a warm, inviting production design) which uncovers bold storytelling through various forms of laughter, but A Man Called Ove also relies too much on formula and cliché to achieve anything of true boldness.
Elderly malaise has been a morbid fascination of foreign filmmakers, evident for more than half a century (Ikiru, Wild Strawberries & Umberto D. to name a few) our resounding fascination (and fear) of death’s approach has achieved spectacular diversity and rejuvenation in a subject matter so unanimously dispiriting. A Man Called Ove, ironically, seems more fascinated with America’s comforting myth of that archetype: The stubborn but conquerable widower, bearing a gentle soul beneath a rough façade.
Ove channels suppressed grief through rage and vitriol, spewed violently toward his neighbors. After being “let go” from his position of 43-years Ove decides the time is right to kill himself, believing that he and his wife will be united in the afterlife. A noose hanging visibly in his living room, Ove attempts to end it all, but as he readies himself he’s interrupted by the commotion of new tenants moving in next door. The film’s director, Hannes Holm, daringly attempts to imbue humor into the absurd decisions of his protagonist, suicide being no exemption. Ove’s numerous attempts to kill himself in the film end in failure, not because he is inept but because something (or someone) always compels him back into the world of the living.
A Man Called Ove seems to be a crash course in Bergman’s signature end-of-life meditation (think Wild Strawberries). The film explores Ove by detailing the most important milestones of his youth. The flashbacks (played as hallucinations) shape the differences between the man’s past self (played by Filip Berg) and present self with bitter contrast. While persuasively sweet A Man Called Ove can’t compensate the sobering reality of its tragedies with its funnier convictions (which boast more cuteness than truthfulness). Holm bravely approaches old age with humor, but he only ends up tinkering and experimenting in the complex relationship between comedy and mortality instead of exploring how the two can successfully intertwine or coalesce into something more profound.
He seems to be even less conscious of the film’s contemporary issues, which are suggested with mindful intent but touched upon with an excruciating lack of depth and exploration. Ove’s seemingly complicated relationship with a migrant neighbor, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), proposes a number of interesting directions story-wise (considering Sweden’s own uncertainty towards migration), but A Man Called Ove is reduced to syrupy hokum, reducing the two’s relationship and possible cross-cultural tension to utopic idealism. The film’s homosexual subplot, which is brief and unproductive, comes off as offensively abrupt and underdeveloped—serving only to ridicule Ove’s worldly disconnect from Europe’s cultural shifts and modernity.
The film’s comedy, for the most part, seems effective only as moments isolated from the story—a flashback sequence between Ove and his estranged “bestie” is perhaps the film’s best scene, just because of how successfully poignant and funny it manages to be, finding unforeseen insight in how something as relatable and simple as the passage of time allows human relationships to dissolve. The sequence could have been a short film all on its own.
The character of Ove seems to be himself a little too innocently aloof to be truly compelling. Rolf Lassgård, however, achieves marvelous beats of emotional insecurity beneath his towering comic authority. Yet, with the exception of characters Sonja and Parvaneh, the majority of the film’s characters seem to appear in the film as nothing more than lustrous ornaments—whittled into sketch props and punchlines. A Man Called Ove prompts comparison to another foreign language film nominated for an Oscar this year, Toni Erdmann, which also used comedy to observe human relationships and the complexity of human emotions. Toni Erdmann seemed content with our dissatisfactions in life, but still manages to find pervasive beauty, and power, even from our most personal failures. A Man Called Ove feels only like a simulation of that kind of affection, it gives us glimpses of beauty but misspends it on phoniness and mawkishness—treating human emotion like a worn-out novelty act.
A Man Called Ove hit theaters Friday, February 17th.