February 23, 2017
Man Called Ove, A – Sweden, 2015
If there’s any justice in the world, Nicholas Sparks will seek out A Man Called Ove and realize just what screen adaptations of his novels have been missing. I say this because A Man Called Ove is one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen, as well as a particularly fascinating character study.
I don’t how else to describe it, so I’ll put it as plainly as I can. The opening scene in Hannes Holm’s Oscar-nominated film, A Man Called Ove, is nothing short of masterful. Now I have seen many films like A Man Called Ove (As Good As It Gets and Nobody’s Fool come to mind right away), yet I have never seen one that so perfectly establishes a character as this one does right off the bat. In the opening scene, an elderly man named Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is shown squabbling over the price of a small bouquet of flowers with a store clerk who couldn’t care less about the man in front of her. Such, you might say, are the times in which we live, but as the film progresses, you realize that much more is going on. This is not the first time for either of them. The man has raised a ruckus before, and a store employee, perhaps the same one, has reacted dispassionately to complaints that stem from a dissatisfaction that has very little to do with the clerk. What we are witnessing in the scene is one of Ove’s daily routines, similar to the rounds that we see him go on in his suburban neighborhood despite no longer officially being in charge of security, and the job he has held for 43 years. Sometimes our routines are the only things keeping us here.
In the film’s early scenes, Ove seems to be going out of his way to be as off-putting as he can. Watching the way he relates to his neighbors and turns down what should be a simple request for assistance, I could tell he was mentally cursing mankind and all that it had become. Being approached with termination later on only confirms his most hardened views of the upper class – “white-shirts,” he calls them – and in retrospect his resignation may be the moment he officially gives up on the world. Soon he’s staring at a rope hanging from his living room ceiling and talking about being with his deceased wife. It’s chaos without you, he speaks aloud to her at one point. There’s only one problem – people kept needing his assistance, and he is always bothered enough by imperfections to put his death on hold and offer angry, condescending aid to the sorry sap in need of it.
Films like this one that feature elderly hotheads as lead characters tend to follow a familiar pattern. Eventually someone will enter the picture and pierce through their thick skin, thereby enabling their true self to shine through. In a film with a young character, this often leads to romance. With an older one, it leads to self-reflection and clarity. Too many of these movies simply can’t resist the temptation to turn the disgruntled lead into a repentant gentlemen by the end of the film. In many ways, A Man Called Ove is no different. Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a new tenant of Iranian descent, comes into his life and slowly begins pulling him out of his shell. There’s also the presence of a stray cat that is about as cliché as they come and the apparently requisite neighborhood children whom he’s at first cold to, but who we sense he come around to in the end.
In truth, we’ve seen a lot of these things before. What sets A Man Called Ove apart are the film’s multiple timelines and its depth and emotional resonance. The characters and the scenarios they find themselves in reverberate, from Ove’s reticent widowed father to his awkward relationship with the world around him. He becomes a heroic individual almost out of necessity and never completely loses his social awkwardness. In a sense, most of his best tendencies are the result of his having found someone capable of bringing them out of him. When he hesitates, it is his late wife, Sonja, (played in flashbacks by Ida Ebgvoll) that either takes the initiative or finds a way to push him in the right direction. Even in death, she hangs over him in the form of people she helped who finds themselves with only Ove to turn to. It’s hard to know what he would have become without her. She enables him to be the man he wants to be, one she likely sensed he was from the very beginning.
It is a testament to the creators of A Man Called Ove that the film is funny without ever making Ove himself the target of cheap jokes and sweet without ever straining credibility. It also features strong performances, two of which are given in service of the same role. Only in two scenes does the film do itself a disservice. The first one unsuccessfully endeavors to find humor in different preferences for cars, and the second asks you to believe that someone engaging in morally questionable antics would not have googled himself at least once. These are more than just minor quibbles, for they are given a good amount of screen time, and they take the film out of reality and into Wes Anderson territory. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a Wes Anderson film, but here, it is distracting and somewhat lazy artistically.
Sadly, I have not had time to see many of the films up for the Academy Awards this year. It looks as if the Best Foreign Language film is coming down to Toni Erdmann and The Salesman, and from what I have read, these films are both deserving in their own right. Still, I hope that people seek out A Man Called Ove. It takes a conventional plot and upends all expectations of it. Faults notwithstanding, it is the standard bearer by which all films like it should now be judged, and even that feels like an understatement. Really. When it's good, it is that good. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars
*A Man Called Ove is in Swedish with English subtitles.