I swear I’ve seen this movie before. It had the same grumpy old widower. It had the same unhealthy obsession with vintage automobiles. It had the same progress through loneliness to an eventual communal acceptance. In fact it might’ve been the same movie, except I’m pretty sure it starred Clint Eastwood, a man not known for speaking Swedish.
A Man Called Ove, therefore, is little more than old news reprinted onto fresh paper. It arrives with nothing new or insightful, stays for a couple of hours and leaves empty-handed. We are meant to sympathise with Ove, but he’s so impossibly cantankerous, so intent on being morbid that it becomes distracting. Eastwood in Gran Torino was also cantankerous, but at least he had the decency to stand by his conviction that, yes, he really did hate those pesky Asian neighbours and their loud dinner parties. Ove is never really sure how he’s meant to feel about anything — no, not even about his dead wife. His convictions are so tenuous that before long we see the tapestry unravelling; this big old lug, feared by everyone, is really not such a bad guy after all.
Ove is played by Rolf Lassgård, who is not a large man but commands the screen with a large presence. It’s an impressive performance; a story of this sort commands its main character to traverse a cascade of emotions and behaviours. He’s always cranky, which is easy enough to portray, but he’s also furious, regretful, ponderous, stubborn, and in one little magical scene, cheekily playful. We get his character. We just don’t get why he does the things he does.
One of the film’s running gags (?) is Ove’s conveyor belt of failed suicide attempts. His wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) has just died, see, and he has vowed to join her as swiftly as possible, except, for reasons that only exist in movies of this sort, he keeps getting interrupted just as he’s about to kick the stool, pull the trigger, suffocate, smear his heavy frame against the front of an oncoming train, etc. “You’re absolutely terrible at dying!”, jokes his neighbour Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), which, if you stop to consider it, isn’t all that funny. I think if you’re intent on dying, you’ll die, like that old librarian in The Shawshank Redemption who found a ceiling, a noose, a chair, and death, all in one scene. To have as many as five attempts disrupted as if on cue is simply unbelievable.
The neighbourhood in which Ove lives is populated by the regular roundup of usual suspects: The young couple whose dog is infatuated with soiling Ove’s garden; an elderly pair who’s in constant need of assistance; the overweight layabout who’s twice as friendly as he needs to be; and of course the new neighbours, who move in across the driveway with — yes, you’ve guessed it — two little girls. Children are important in these kinds of movies, because without them the grouchy old fart will never realise what a big softy he is on the inside (there’s even the obligatory babysitting scene in which Ove not only puts the kids to sleep but also tidies up the house à la Mary Poppins). Everyone in his circle exists merely to peeve him and later to celebrate as he rejoins society. They serve no other purpose and provide no meaningful insight to the life of what the filmmakers clearly believe to be a complicated and sympathetic figure.
A Man Called Ove will win few hearts and change few minds. It has strong performances and a winning charisma in Lassgård but doesn’t do enough to break away from the shackles of the genre. I found myself marginally bored in parts, especially when the plot skips back to when Ove is much younger and deep into his courtship with Sonja. It doesn’t gel as cleanly as it should. It doesn’t hit the right notes. Many times, it is simply confused. When Ove attempts to hang himself, it is dark and unsettling. Then when there’s a sudden knock on the door, and Ove grunts and groans in annoyance as he loosens the noose and steps off the stool, we’re meant to laugh ironically. Somewhere in between a vital link is missing.