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 pliable and surprising. The old man is Ove (Rolf Lassgård), a 59-year-old 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 vision of paradise in this idyllic setting, 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 he now faces due to 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 comedy, 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 some of cinema’s greatest directors (Ikiru, Wild Strawberries), our resounding fascination (and fear) of death’s approach has achieved spectacular diversity in a subject matter so unanimously dispiriting. A Man Called Ove, however, seems more fascinated with the west’s comforting myth of the world-weary curmudgeon; a stubborn yet ultimately conquerable man, Ove bears a predictably gentle soul beneath that toughened façade.
Though not entirely obvious Ove carries a lot of grief beneath his vitriol, a nasty attitude he spews invidiously at his neighbors. After being “let go” from his position of 43-years Ove decides it’s the right time to kill himself. Ove attempts to end it all with noose suspended in his living room, but as he readies himself his suicide is 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 is no exemption to that). Ove’s numerous attempts to kill himself in the film end in failure, not because he is inept but because something 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). We explore Ove’s life by detailing his most important milestones. The flashbacks (played in the film 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 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 or 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 its own issues with 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 “best friend” (now catatonic and confined to a wheel chair) is perhaps the film’s best scene, just because of how effectively poignant and funny it manages to be while discovering unforeseen insight in how something as relatable and simple as a passage of time forcing people to distance themselves from one another. The sequence could have been a cute and satisfying 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 also 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.