“A Man Called Ove” is a gentle reminder that there is more to Swedish cinema than Lisbeth Salandar, the wee vampires of “Let the Right One In,” and the classics of Ingmar Bergman.
Instead, this international hit is a modest contemporary story of an old curmudgeon and his path to redemption. It might not break any new ground, and it’s certainly predictable, but “Ove” is a funny, well-acted and compelling film that’s refreshingly free of bombast.
There are shades of many other films and books here — Jack Nicholson’s “About Schmidt,” a little bit of Paul Newman’s “Nobody’s Fool,” the recent French drama “The Student and Mister Henri.” Like the latter two, at least, it’s a real crowdpleaser.
“A Man Called Ove” is based on a worldwide bestseller by Fredrik Backman — according to NPR, the word-of-mouth sensation began with a first printing of 6,000 copies, while today one million copies are in circulation — and ranks as the fifth most popular local film of all time in Sweden. Much of that popularity is due to the irresistibility of its central theme. Within the film’s first few minutes, it’s clear we’re in for a “never too late to become a better person” tale. Happily, this version is mostly winning.
Rolf Lassgård plays Ove, a 59-year-old widower who looks about ten years older. He’s still holding down a job, but his most impassioned activity is serving as self-appointed overseer of his condominium neighborhood. (Ove was once president of the condominium association, before a “coup” pushed him out of the role.)
As the opening credits hilariously and delightfully show, Ove polices the neighborhood with a scowl, earning the enmity of many of his neighbors. Some, however, recall the kindness of Ove’s late wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), and give him a bit of a pass.
After leaving/being pushed from his job, Ove matter-of-factly prepares to join Sonja. But his (rather droll) suicide attempt is prevented by the arrival of new neighbors Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), her husband Patrik (Tobias Almborg), and their two daughters.
Parvaneh is a wonder of a character, a wise, loving figure. Pregnant with her third child and hoping to learn how to drive, she quickly sees past Ove’s gruff exterior. They become real friends, and Ove bonds with the children. Of course he does. “A Man Called Ove,” after all, is that kind of movie. Yet it would be a disservice to dismiss the film. There is real emotional resonance here, especially the scenes of a young Ove (played by Filip Berg) meeting his wife, and suffering through a tragic accident.
There’s also delightful humor, most of it thanks to Lassgård, who is famous in his homeland as the star of several “Wallander” TV films based on the Henning Mankell novels.
Lassgård’s chemistry with Pars is a delight; their scenes together are the funniest of the film. Ove is a seriously ornery character, but Parvaneh and her daughters bring out the elements of his personality that dissolved long ago. Kudos to Lassgård and Pars for making such tired plot points feel reasonably fresh.
There are also unexpected darkly comic touches. It's rather brilliant that Ove angrily returns to the hardware store after the rope breaks in the middle of another suicide attempt, and the sequence of his automobile one-upmanship with a neighbor — Ove is a Saab man, the neighbor a Volvo fan — is laugh-out-loud memorable.
Even so, “A Man Called Ove” fails to reach the highs of “Toni Erdmann,” a German comedy about an aging father and his rattled daughter that’s likely to wind up as one of the year’s most popular foreign language hits. “Erdmann” is bold, and wildly funny, while “Ove” is content with a few chuckles and some heartwarming moments.
And that’s just fine. Its ambition may be limited, but “A Man Called Ove” is Swedish comfort food that’s surprisingly tasty, and easily digestible.
"A Man Called Ove”
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll
Director: Hannes Holm
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and language
The lowdown: Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree, gives up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors.