The angry old gent at the heart of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove is the kind of man who puts on a suit and tie every time he tries to kill himself, which believe me is more than twice. He's also the kind of man you're likely to find in films submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So even though Ove, who's played with firmly compressed lips by Rolf Lassgard, is a royal pain in the butt, the suicides are played for gentle laughs and it's pretty clear from the get-go that things will pan out, in their deadpan Scandinavian way.
A Man Called Ove won't win Best Foreign Film this year, nor should it, but it's worth your time, and it's easy to see why this proudly populist movie was a smash hit in Sweden. Men in white collars do not fare well here; the heroes are Everymen and -women who actually make things. But this modest dramedy, deftly directed by Hannes Holm from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, is as sweetly sincere as it is market-driven, with gusts of saving black comedy rolling in to rescue it from excess goo.
In fact, Ove's not that old. He's only 59, but life has slapped him around a lot, especially lately. His beloved wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) recently died of cancer and the impertinent whippersnappers who now head the company he's faithfully served for 43 years fire him with the most callous of golden handshakes. He's alienated his best friend over a trifle, and now the friend is paralyzed by a stroke. Small wonder that Ove kicks other people's pets, appoints himself the enforcer of regulations that neighbors on his provincial street never knew existed, and calls almost everyone he meets an idiot. It goes without saying that the neighbors we see scampering off his lawn, headed by a heavily pregnant, congenitally optimistic young Iranian named Parvaneh (a beguiling Bahar Pars), will gear up to give him reasons to live. There will be babysitting, and driving lessons, and hot meals on doorsteps, and lashings of amiable shtick before Ove gets with the program.
So far, so pleasantly familiar. The flashbacks that carry us through Ove's past are consistently richer and deeper, in part because they take seriously his gains and losses — and his cascading grief, once he confronts it. The film observes his transformation from salt of the earth to embittered curmudgeon with intelligent sympathy. Like many adults who lost a parent early, Ove (played as a young man by Philip Berg) is awkward and childlike, but he's a fixer who shows love and respect through building and repair, and we learn that he's enough of a diamond in the rough to be plucked from bachelorhood by solid women like Sonja, who has cornflower-blue eyes and an enchanting overbite. In her absence, the exuberant Parvaneh steps in to heal the savage breast.
Much of this is pure corn, of course, but it's sprightly, honorable corn. And A Man Called Ove doesn't shy away from the darker insight that almost every life, at a certain point, becomes about incremental losses and about how we struggle to deal with them. Ove doesn't achieve insight or even that mysterious, made-up thing we call closure. He gets busy caring for others, and then he grow attached, and then he rediscovers his own best self by other means. And then — well. You'll have to see.