Imagine crossing “The Odd Couple” with “Rain Man” and you’ll have some idea of what Petter Naess’ “Elling” is like. Happily the Norwegian picture is sufficiently small-scaled, and the performances subtle enough, to keep it from becoming a heavy-handed, farcical homily. By maintaining a modest stance and a gentle, affectionate tone it emerges as winning rather than wearying.
The title character, played by Per Christian Ellefsen (a surname that seems apt, since the actor has an elfin or gnomelike appearance), is an agoraphobic momma’s boy who’s sent to a mental hospital after his mother dies. He rooms with a large, simple-minded fellow named Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), and the men develop a close friendship. Ultimately, the duo is deemed ready for the outside world and assigned a state-funded apartment in Oslo. Both men gradually break out of their shells, Kjell by romancing Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), a pregnant upstairs neighbor, and Elling by falling in with Alfons Jorgensen (Per Christensen), an elderly poet who inspires him to publicize his own verse by an amusingly absurd route. Also on hand is a good-natured social worker, Frank (Jorgen Langhelle), who watches over their progress.
“Elling” could easily have been maudlin, but with the help of his skilled cast Naess manages to avoid mawkishness; and though he first presented the story (based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen) as a stage piece, he’s opened it up nicely for the screen. Both Ellefsen and Nordin resist the temptation to overdo and make the characters charmingly loyal and nicely unpredictable. Jacobsen, Christensen and Langhelle provide solid, understated support, and Svein Krovel’s camerawork catches the Nordic crispness beautifully.
In fact, the only thing troubling about “Elling” is the inevitability of a Hollywood remake–no doubt a bloated, overproduced one. Just think Robin Williams in his “One Stop Photo” mode and Arnold Schwarzenegger once more showing his “Twins” comic talent. The prospect is almost enough to ruin one’s enjoyment of Naess’ picture. But not quite.