There’s a bit of a “Forest Gump” vibe to “A Man Called Ove,” a Swedish comedy-drama that ultimately aims for the heartstrings more than the funny bone. Mostly genial, but with a heavy dose of pathos, Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s novel gets its share of laughs, but as it proceeds opts more for sighs of contentment and a few tears.
Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a grieving widower who also happens to be resident nag of his little neighborhood, prowling the streets daily to remove improperly parked bikes, harangue folks with pets they don’t control and prohibit people from driving in the streets. Those were rules he made in concert with his long-time friend Rune (Borje Lundberg) when Ove was head of the neighborhood board, and he continues to enforce them even after he’s been ousted from the post by Rune, with whom he’d had a falling-out over the relative virtues of Saabs and Volvos. Their animosity continues even though Rune has been incapacitated with a stroke and his wife Anita (Chartarina Larsson) is struggling to keep him at home rather than seeing him hauled off to a public facility. To add to his problems, Ove has just been unceremoniously fired from his job of more than forty years.
All of Ove’s frustrations are soon to end, however, because he intends to commit suicide and join his wife, who though wheelchair-bound was a beloved teacher of disadvantaged youth. But though he’s handy in every other respect, Ove proves terrible at killing himself: all his attempts either fail or are inconveniently interrupted, mostly by the noisy neighbors who have just moved in across the road—talkative, intrusive, pregnant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), her inept husband Patrik (Tobias Almborg), and their two young daughters (Nelly Jamarani and Zozan Akgun).
Much of the film has to do with Ove’s developing relationship with this family: they’ll borrow tools from him (that they’ll then induce him to use for them), and Parvaneh will reciprocate with home-made food. She’ll also ask him to give her driving lessons—something that eventually leads him to share some memories of years past with her.
Before the film is over, moreover, Ove will mellow in other ways. He’ll adopt a stray cat he’d previously shooed away from his backyard, and grow extraordinarily protective of it. He’ll not only become friendly toward a boy—one of his wife’s former students—whose bike he’d previously commandeered, but take in one of his friends, a young gay man who’d been thrown out of his house by his father. And he’ll come to the aid of Rune and Anita as well.
But Ove’s present-day story is only the beginning. Episodes in it—especially his suicide attempts—lead to frequent flashbacks about his youth, in which he’s played by Viktor Baagoe, detailing his relationship with his father (Stefan Godicke), and about his experiences as a young man (Filip Berg), in which we learn of his courtship of the lovely Sonja (Ida Engvoll) and his blissful life with her, even if it was occasionally touched by loss. The flashbacks make clear the ups and downs of Ove’s fifty-nine years, as well as a couple of incidents in which he acts heroically, though adamantly refusing any public recognition of his courage.
The early portions of “My Name of Ove,” in which the fellow is a cantankerous grouch, are easily the most amusing parts of the picture. Lassgard brings a gleeful acerbity to scenes in which Ove refuses to suffer those whom he considers fools gladly, and walks a fine line between tragedy and farce in playing his suicide attempts. But as Ove’s crusty exterior gradually thaws, the picture becomes less comic and much sappier. Pars’s insistent matter-of-factness makes the transition more palatable, but even she has difficulty coping with scenes like a hospital visit in which Ove and the children are thrown together and become pals despite the intervention of a troublesome volunteer dressed in clown garb. By the close, Ove has become a thoroughly benign, grandfatherly soul, a modern Scrooge or Grinch turned to kindness by simply reconnecting with people.
That’s the moral of the picture, of course—the idea that no man is an island. It’s a well-worn message delivered a mite too comfortably to make the picture anything more than a moderately engaging but extremely manipulative crowd-pleaser that starts off quirky but grows increasingly cloying. It looks very fine—Jan Olof’s production design, Camilla Lindblom’s costumes and Goran Hallberg’s cinematography work together to effect a creamy surface, especially in the flashbacks, though the score by Gaute Storaas can be awfully obvious at times.
By any objective standard “My Name is Ove” is an overly calculated mixture of comic whimsy and tearjerking sentiment. But like a piece of candy with a sour exterior and a sweet center, it’s a confection that many viewers will find agreeable.