Film Review: A Man Called Ove

Sour-turned-sweet comedy-drama about a sour-turned-almost-sweet retired curmudgeon in terminal grief over his deceased wife blossoms into an unexpected cinematic gem that will bring light tears and awards attention.
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With A Man Called Ove, Sweden’s official selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, filmmaker Hannes Holm, who adapted from Fredrik Backman’s huge bestseller, delivers the kind of “foreign film” that art-house audiences back in the heyday made haste to. The times they have a-changed, but this entry, even if it doesn’t stop traffic the way it might have, should generate plenty of interest among today’s fans of films of the quieter kind.

Not that A Man Called Ove, in which charm and dark humor make nice together, is an old-fashioned, laid-back tale. Yes, the film does exploit that familiar gimmick of putting a nasty piece of work in the ring with relatively decent folk. And it flirts with comedic overkill in repeated scenes of the depressed hero flubbing his suicide attempts. But interest grows quickly as new characters breach Ove’s tortured solitude. Most revealing are the frequent flashbacks, triggered by those suicide attempts, that reveal Ove’s life before his fall into a self-pitying abyss. Soon, we’re hooked and there’s no letting go.

At the funny-grim beginning we meet Ove (Rolf Lassgård, the original Kurt Wallander in the hit Swedish TV series), a just-fired 59-year-old factory worker and cat-kicking, uncommunicative grump who serves as a kind of self-appointed ombudsman for his modest apartment complex. When he’s not scolding tenants and trespassers for the slightest offenses, he’s spending time at his beloved late wife’s grave, where he places bouquets that must meet his low-price standards or the seller catches hell.

He also victimizes longtime former lost friends in the complex. These are the kindly Anita (Chatarina Larsson) and her husband Rune (Börje Lundberg), Ove’s best bud years back until they fought bitterly over the cars they loved (Volvo vs. Saab) and Rune descended into old age and incapacity.

Ove is clearly at the end of his rope, beginning with the one that breaks when he tries his first suicide. But things change, beginning with his encounter with new neighbors Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a warm Persian mother now pregnant with her third child, and her husband Patrick (Tobias Almborg), who, arriving by car with their young kids, knock into Ove’s mailbox. Of course, Ove shows his mean side, but this doesn’t stop the wise Parvaneh from asking him favors to help the family get settled.

The loan of a ladder from a grumbling Ove turns more unfortunate when Patrick falls from it and is hospitalized, leaving Parvaneh busier than ever. Still a believer in her bad neighbor and the good-neighbor policy, she calls upon an ever-resistant Ove to watch the kids. But Ove continues with his suicide attempts, botched either by logistics or interruptions.

Flashbacks show a young Ove who loves his dad (Stefan Gödicke), a kindly man who works on trains but loses his life in a railyard accident. Other glimpses at his past reveal how Ove met his lovely wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), how she courted him but experienced great misfortunes during their happy marriage. An equally telling flashback, in which a fire destroys Ove’s first house, explains his misanthropy and hatred of greedy, self-serving “white shirt” bureaucrats.

But it’s Parvaneh who intuitively sees the decency in Ove beneath all the muck. Seeing through his bad behavior, she persists with patience and tolerance that slowly open him up to creatures he once scorned, like a homeless gay restaurant worker and a homeless cat.

There’s nothing at all soppy or corny, as all this unravels from downhill to uphill through detours to the past and lessons learned about the importance of connecting with others and giving them a chance to show their better selves. Even an act of heroism may be in Ove’s cards.

A Man Called Ove boasts a handsome production and top-notch performances, most notably from Lassgård as the downsized Ove. And how exciting (and ironic) to learn that he will next be seen in Alexander Payne’s upcoming Downsizing.

Click here for cast and crew information.