On his 100th birthday, Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) decides to break out of his retirement home, after realising he still has more living to do. Until now, this ordinary man has already lived an extraordinary life, but there are plenty more adventures to follow for this centenarian now on the loose.
BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: Along with Johan Harstad’s similarly longwinded Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, Jonas Jonasson’s 2009 novel has probably inspired the most affection from English-language readers than anything from Scandinavia since Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. A runaway bestseller in its homeland, and well-reviewed throughout Europe, a film version was inevitable; the news that it would star Robert Gustafsson, a TV comedian hailed as ‘the funniest man in Sweden,’ only further delighted fans; released on Christmas Day, the comedy went on to take more than US$40m at the local box office. Pia Lundberg of the Swedish Film Institute described it as ‘a cultural phenomenon.’
Depending on where you sit, the result either confirms that the Swedes really are as dour as all those Bergman films suggested, or—more charitably—that some jokes just don’t survive translation.
Gustafsson plays Allan Karlsson, who as the film opens is about to celebrate his centenary at the retirement home to which he’s been consigned since killing the fox which murdered his beloved pet, a cat called Molotov. (The fact that he dispatched the animal by blowing it up—with actual dynamite—should indicate the kind of Type-A personality we’re dealing with, here.)
Let me re-phrase that: Allan is actually about to be subjected to a birthday party in which he has precisely no interest whatsoever. And so he takes advantage of the opportunity to escape, slipping out a window and catching a bus to a neighbouring town. In the process he happens upon a suitcase which, inevitably, turns out to contain 50 million stolen Krona. Together with another fossil—boozy, blustering Julius—he begins to flee across Sweden, a gang of drug dealers (for it is their money) hot upon his heels, accumulating further accomplices (hapless student Benny, the fiesty-but-sweet Gunilla) along the way.
This picaresque, however, is merely the framing narrative: the ground upon which the real business of the film rests. A good deal of the film’s action is set in the past, as Allan looks back upon the events of his unusually hectic life. Orphaned at a young age, lacking even the basic rudiments of formal education, he is placed in an institution, where he acquires an early fascination with blowing things up, and finally, after a series of odd contrivances, winds up in Spain—just in time for the Civil War, where he dines with no less than General Francisco Franco himself.
From which point, he encounters most of the titans of 20th century history: drinking with future US President Harry Truman, dancing with Josef Stalin, showing Oppenheimer where he’d been going wrong in the development of the A-bomb… even causing (albeit accidentally) the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
You might, by now, be experiencing a mild shiver of recognition—is Allan not Woody Allen’s Zelig in all but name? (Even his name would suggest the influence.) Like that character, Allan Karlsson is a close bystander to history who leaves curiously little trace. He’s also a tabula rasa, a frictionless void where a personality should be—oddly serene in even the most urgent situation, and indifferent (or oblivious) to both the atrocities and the wonders he witnesses. And while he causes a number of fatalities along the way, only the slaughter of his tabby, late in his old age, really stirs his emotions; the rest slide off him with barely a shrug.
But where Allen’s film turned upon an ingenious stylistic conceit—a faux-documentary, it took pains to insert the chameleon-like Zelig convincingly into actual newsreel footage—this one merely recreates the scenarios, with Swedish actors playing the various parts, via a series of impersonations so amateurish and broad, so groan-inducing, that it feels like a Scandinavian French and Saunders sketch. (Judging from his co-stars, Gustafsson may indeed be the funniest man in Sweden, as proclaimed. But that’s not setting the bar terribly high.)
In fact, with his blank affect, his nearly autistic self-possession, Allan more closely resembles another movie man-child: Forrest Gump. He even has a mantra he repeats from time to time, à la ‘life is a box of chocolates’: ‘Life is what it is, and will be what it will be’—a rhetorical tic he borrowed from his mother, on her deathbed. But, again, there’s a deeper precedent: Kurt Vonnegut’s Koan-like ‘So it goes,’ from Slaughterhouse-Five. Now there was a story prepared to look the horrors of the previous century squarely in the eye; its humour (again, closely tied to history) was very much of the laughter-in-the-dark variety. This one, by contrast, feels over-eager, simplistic and cutesy, right down to Matti Bye’s carnivalesque score, which feels like you’re trapped on some ghastly, never-ending merry-go-round. Emphatically urging you to laugh, it inspired—in this reviewer, at least—barely so much as a chuckle.