A Man Called Ove is one of the darkest and funniest black comedies I’ve seen in quite some time. The first 10 minutes alone feature an untimely firing, a visit to the graveyard and two suicide attempts on the part of our eponymous protagonist. If that doesn’t sound particularly hilarious to you, you’ll have to take my word for it. Or better yet, go see Ove and decide for yourself. I think you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Written and directed by Hannes Holm and based on a bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman, Ove plays a bit like a Swedish Gran Torino meets Better Off Dead. Or It’s a Wonderful Life if George Bailey and Mr. Potter had somehow coalesced into one character. But such descriptions don’t come anywhere close to explaining what’s so great about this film. The balancing act it pulls off so masterfully is in depicting Ove as a genuinely loathsome grouch — as opposed to the standard lovable curmudgeon found in countless other films — and inducing the audience to sympathize with him because of his flaws rather than in spite of them. Ove, played with wonderful nuance by Rolf Lassgård, is introduced as nothing short of a hateful bastard, but we eventually love him for it anyway.
Ove is the self-appointed tyrant of his small Swedish neighborhood, enforcing arbitrary rules he instated before he was ousted from the block association presidency by longtime friend and rival Rune (Börje Lundberg). Along with his decades-old dead-end job working for the railroad, Ove’s daily rounds checking locks and handwriting unofficial parking tickets in his neighborhood seem to be the only things keeping him going since the tragic death of his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll). When a new family moves in across the street, backing into his mailbox and thereby thwarting his first suicide attempt, the begrudging friendship he slowly develops with plucky Persian matriarch Parvaneh (an excellent Bahar Pars) is the first of many new attachments that will slowly but inexorably bring him back from the brink.
Holm creates pathos through a particularly brilliant structural conceit, utilizing Ove’s (numerous) failed suicide attempts to initiate flashbacks that contribute subtle shading to his character. As each attempt is interrupted by new friends and neighbors, Ove is gradually coaxed out of his maudlin mourning and self-destructive downward spiral. The more we learn about Ove through these flashbacks and his involuntary interactions with others, the more likable and relatable he becomes, until there’s really no choice but to root for him. His split with Rune — over the fact that Ove, a Saab man, couldn’t tolerate his friend’s loyalty to Volvo — may seem superficially petty at first, but it becomes part of a broader context in which the audience comes to see Ove’s rigid worldview as the logical outgrowth of a lifetime of suffering and loss.
The greatest strength of Ove from a narrative standpoint is that it’s a story firmly rooted in character. Ove’s traits remain consistent throughout, and it’s the audience’s perception of them that changes as we see his character develop over time. Watching his rage build — layer after painful layer following decades of doing the right thing only to be punished by fate — it’s supremely gratifying to watch Ove’s innate kindness emerge with the help of his growing cast of misfit compatriots. There’s no great epiphany for Ove, just a slow burn of budding relationships and responsibilities that lead to his treatment of others becoming slightly less awful. He grows as a character, but not in the arbitrary manner usually seen in stories such as this.
It’s difficult to explain how seamlessly the film incorporates its bleak humor with its surprisingly bighearted story other than to say Ove is remarkable in its capacity to fulfill Roger Ebert’s definition of cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Holm manages the near-impossible task of turning a saccharine melodrama into a biting comedy that still manages to deliver a poignant message of tolerance and hope. Saying A Man Called Ove is hilarious would be a disservice to the film’s uplifting aspects, just as saying it is a feel-good film would be overly dismissive to its sardonic wit. It might be safest to say that, even if you walk into the theater every bit jaded as Ove, it’s highly unlikely you’ll leave in the same state. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and language.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.