“Sometimes, however, honesty needs a little assistance”
Despite being rated PG-13 due to a liberal use of the word “shit,” En man som heter Ove [A Man Called Ove] is still one of the most full-hearted family-friendly dramedies of the year. I’d even say it’s the live action version of Up you’ve waited for since 2009, one where Russell is replaced by a pregnant Persian mother of two for whom the titular by-the-books curmudgeon (played by Rolf Lassgård) can gradually share his wondrous yet oft-tragic past in lieu of a tearjerker prologue. Hannes Holm‘s film provides a thaw that brings back some of the joy Ove lost when his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) passed on. Who knew it would come at the behest of a loud, unwanted neighbor the day he readied his noose?
Like his counterpart in Fredrik Backman‘s 2012 novel of the same name, Ove has never been one for tardiness. He almost missed his first date with the woman he’d marry simply because he thought she stood him up after waiting fifteen minutes. Well, he currently finds himself guilty of this exact personal sin because he promised Sonja he’d be with her in Heaven (Catholics look away) soon and yet his suicide attempts are continuously interrupted. The prideful soul he is beneath the prickly exterior shown—if only to prove to the masses that he isn’t an impolite idiot like the rest—forces him to reply to knocks on doors and egregious rebukes of laws he co-wrote as chairman of his residential development’s board. His work is never done.
So when he hears a car engine on the community’s pedestrian walkway and the crash of it hitting his mailbox, he must remove the rope from his neck and stomp outside to deliver a piece of his mind. Unfettered, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) deflects every biting word thrown hers and husband Patrik’s (Tobias Almborg) way into a challenge turning Ove’s indignation into begrudging assistance. He resigns himself to letting them move in so things can return to normal before reigniting his plans for the afterlife. Cursed (or perhaps blessed) with the worst luck in the world, however, every instance that white light begins to come into focus is met with something to jog him back awake. It’s through these present frustrations that glimpses of an honest, heroic past arrive.
Suicide-centric plot for laughs aside, what follows is a charmingly sweet adventure of the heart with carefully hidden details sprinkled throughout to infer on incongruous notions. If Ove is so cantankerous, why does Jimmy (Klas Wiljergård) approach with a smile as though they were friends? How did Rune (Börje Lundberg) supposedly lead a coup to oust him as chairman if he’s paralyzed in a wheelchair? And why is Ove’s kitchen counter at waist height? Some of these things are introduced for levity’s sake, but they’ll all become clearer with contextual insight soon. And despite tragedy often coloring these revelations, there’s an almost unshakeable sense of looking on the bright side regardless. The biggest mystery inevitably surrounds how an impassioned (albeit robotic and temper-fueled) Ove could turn so sour.
Lassgård plays the role perfectly with impatient contempt towards the changes happening at a time where he hopes to join his wife in death. He enjoys jerking people around whether a neighbor and her dog or a kid leaving a bicycle where it shouldn’t be (Ove takes his rounds at 8:00 am to ensure bylaws are enforced); hisses at a stray cat to scare it away; and has no shame mocking people to their faces. The grudges he holds stem from laughable situations (Saabs are superior cars while Volvos should be destroyed on principle) and he refuses to talk out his issues when it’s easier just to leave the conversation completely. Everyone left him alone as a result, so Parvaneh constantly engaging him is both irksome and appreciated.
Pars is a delight in this role because she’ll ignore his guff unless she knows “being mad” at him will earn the reaction coveted. An Iranian immigrant who learned Swedish, married a man who can’t speak her language, and is about to raise three children while also working, Ove would have to be a lot worse to knock her off-balance. When most cower and walk away upon learning their questions anger him, she pushes forward to get her point across and discover his truth. Only by talking about Sonja and the life he lived can he once again remember the happier times and hope to reclaim them today. Watching him interact with Parvaneh’s kids peels back the first layer of tough skin with the rest following soon after.
While I did love Ove and Parvaneh’s interactions in the present, however, I found the memory-filled flashbacks even more captivating. Filip Berg plays the titular role as a younger man: awkward, strong, and selfless in a way that led him to literally save lives. It’s at this age that his feud with “white shirts” (think all bureaucratic men with clipboards looking at the bottom-line and ignoring human decency) originates and where fate leads him into Sonja’s train car. We get to see his knee-jerk desire to build and fix things when necessary—something we knew existed despite his default reaction of rejection for those in need now. We also learn about the type of woman Sonja was and why he misses her so. You would too.
Backman and Holm embrace their story’s fairy tale quality of destiny and love conquering all to a level that renders it sweet rather than cliché. The stock characters such as the “white shirts” work in this context because they provide a clear delineation between good and evil without violence to keep things wholesome enough for children to enjoy. But it is a Grinch tale for adults, its look at the ways life can trick you into an attitude that isn’t justified as easily as surprise you with an epiphany to grow and adapt before it’s too late proving utterly relatable. Sweden’s Oscar hopeful won’t be for everyone and some may call it slight in its obvious progressions, but it will delight those willing to give it a chance.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 116 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (Sweden)
Studio: Nordisk Film / Music Box Films
Director(s): Hannes Holm
Writer(s): Hannes Holm / Fredrik Backman (novel)