They don’t come around all that often, but the movies love a charismatically gruff old man. From the goofy classic Grumpy Old Men with Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau to Clint Eastwood’s racist curmudgeon in Gran Turino, there’s a strange appeal to bitter old cranks. At least, when they discover they have a heart after all. Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove, from the novel by Fredrik Backman, follows in the genre’s creaky, recalcitrant footsteps. With a wonderful performance as the titular Ove from Rolf Lassgård, the film hits all the right irascible notes. Nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category, and another for Makeup and Hairstyling, A Man Called Ove has been an unlikely success.
Ove is a widower, lording it over the denizens of his small developed community. No longer the Chair of the council, he nitpicks everyone over regulations as he gruffly goes about his morning rounds. His tight routines are thrown into chaos with the arrival of a new family, a dimly pleasant younger Swedish man, his boisterous Iranian wife, and their two young daughters. As the mismatched neighbors navigate a prickly relationship, the film moves back and forth in time, revealing key episodes from Ove’s earlier life. The missing center of his existence is his departed wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll, radiant in a slightly defined role). While Ove has always been difficult and reserved, from the misfortunes of childhood on, Sonja humanized him (though why she would ever take an interest in such an evident misfit remains a mystery). Adrift without her, Ove decides that suicide is his best option to rejoin her. Fortunately, he’s very, very bad at killing himself. Holm finds unlikely comedy as Ove’s attempts to end it all inevitably go awry.
The novelistic flashbacks give the film its episodic structure, gradually revealing the layers of tragedy that have embittered Ove. But there’s plenty of wry humor in the film, too. Beyond the mordant wit of Ove’s suicide attempts, his utter inability to have a polite interaction with anyone is deftly skewered throughout the film, most people tolerating him as a daft crank that’s been through a lot. Watching the admittedly predictable arc of him open up is surprisingly affecting, thanks to a performance from Lassgård that’s crotchety without being histrionic. Bahar Pars is excellent as the exasperated Iranian woman that draws him out, and Holm’s low-key direction keeps the whole thing lightly grounded. And yes, the adorable rag doll cat that infiltrates Ove’s home helps, too.
A Man Called Ove premieres in Toronto today, playing the Varsity for an exclusive engagement before opening wider across Canada. It’s the biggest foreign language art house film of 2016, having already grossed $3.3 million in the US, and it’s set box office records in Sweden. Pretty good for a depressed, dyspeptic Swede.