Arts movie review

The life and times of a loveable curmudgeon

A Man Called Ove warms the heart with rehashed plots

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Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove.
Music Box Films

A Man Called Ove
Directed by Hannes Holm
Starring Rolf Lassgård, Filip Berg, Bahar Pars, Ida Engvoll
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Both the cover of Fredrik Backman’s worldwide bestseller and the promotional poster for director Hannes Holm’s film A Man Called Ove feature an old man and a cat against a dreary backdrop of subdued blues. Both follow the life and times of Ove, a grouchy old man who lives in a neighborhood full of people he seems to hate.

Book purists be wary. Holm is ready to admit that his adaption is not a line-for-line translation into film. When asked about his process, he said that “instead of stealing the story out from the book, I read the book so many times, and I gave the book to my mother, and then wrote my story instead. The trick is if you read a book and you really love it, then you tell the story. But the story you tell, it’s not just the book. You tell your story.”

The director described how he saw something in the book that really resonated with him. He saw a book about immigrants and a grumpy old man, but he said “when the author started to explain Ove’s life, I could see my parents’ life before we children came and I had the opportunity to shoot a film about my parents’ life before we children came.” Perhaps it is because of his personal and emotional connection to the source material that Holm is able to create a meandering film that isn’t only about Ove’s life from birth to death, but also a film about relationships and how they start and grow and then crumble and are rebuilt again.

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the classic grumpy man next door with quirks and opinions that he isn’t afraid to share with his neighbors. When a new immigrant family moves in next door and flattens his mailbox, his anger and frustrations eventually morph into an unlikely friendship that send a ripple effect through other relationships in his life. Woven into the present-day narrative are also flashbacks of Ove’s past, starting from his life as a young boy and detailing an exhaustive list of tragedies and misfortunes that presumably have formed his cantankerous character today.

If that all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it is. A Man Called Ove is a retread of the classic “grumpy old man has a heart of gold” trope. At times the film feels mechanical, not in its performances, but in the direction of its plot. Many of the scenes of strife and reconciliation function simply to check off boxes in typically-seen categories like “tragic circumstances,” “comedic misunderstanding,” “adorable meet-cute,” etc. Although the film follows an archetypal formula, it is a formula that works. Despite the cookie-cutter feel, the tragedy of Ove’s life is undeniably real, and the implications that his past has on his current demeanor and behavior can resonate with viewers.

The film succeeds by bringing depth and dimension to what otherwise would have been a flat, cardboard version of the quintessential grumpy old man. Rolf Lasgaard gives a committed performance that rides the line between serious emotion and well-timed comedy and truly embodies the internal conflicts that define Ove’s character.

The film as a whole is a balancing act. Holm has spent much of his career in the 80s and 90s writing primarily comedic films. He admits that when he is writing scripts, he “often has the problem of sometimes [the script] can be a bit too funny and a bit too jokey. And that’s not good. You want to have a balance. If you are too funny, you lose your audience and the audience will lose their sense of emotion in the film.”

Holm takes death, loss, and the hardships of life and rounds out the sharp edges of the overtly gloomy with comedy, laughter, and ridiculous circumstances. A hissy cat, a tussle with a hospital clown, and an exaggerated feud between a Saab and Volvo owner are only a few moments that lighten the mood. Dark comedy also makes an appearance too in the film’s running gag involving horribly executed suicide attempts that are always interrupted in the most inopportune ways.  

“It’s a film about life itself,” says Holm. This holds true in many ways. Holm hopes that after watching the film, audiences will “go home from the cinema to some person that [they] love and hug that person because you never know when it’s too late. Things happen in life.” Though it doesn’t really break any new ground, A Man Called Ove comfortably takes its place among the many crowd-pleasing movies that aim to warm your heart and bring a smile to your face.