There’s a hoary old gag that Scandinavian humour is no laughing matter. Appropriate, then, that this picaresque Swedish revisiting of the central riffs of Forrest Gump offers scant laughs as our explosive anti-hero pinballs his way through the highlights of 20th-century history, his path variously crossing with those of Franco, Stalin, Truman, Oppenheimer and Reagan. Instead we get a smorgasbord of wry satire laced with “holy fool” bons mots (“life is like a box of chocolates” transmuting into “life is what it is”), punctuated by a series of bleakly comic deaths – by decapitation, hypothermia, firing squad, explosion et al – and narrated from a standpoint of aged, shoulder-shrugging, sterilised resignation.
It sounds alienatingly unlikable, but with the backing of Disney distribution, Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvannbecame a festive Euro-hit last Christmas, giving The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a run for its money in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, and being dubbed “the Scandinavian Intouchables“, a reference to the French blockbuster (retitled Untouchable in the UK) which grossed more than $400m worldwide.
Based on the bestselling 2009 debut novel by Jonas Jonasson, the wildly whimsical narrative follows the misadventures of Allan Karlsson (Swedish comedy great Robert Gustafsson) who escapes from an old people’s home just in time to miss his own centenary birthday party.
Shambling to the nearest bus stop in cork-soled slip-ons, Allan buys a ticket to nowhere, accidentally purloining en route a suitcase full of money. Pursued by an incompetent motorcycle gang, and variously teaming up with an ageing rogue, an incomplete man and a feisty woman with a pet elephant, Allan follows a trail of unintentional destruction through which the haphazard cataclysms of his past are refracted. One minute, he’s attempting to dispose of a deep-frozen body in the dreamily chaotic present; the next, he’s flashing back to a life in which his undying desire to blow things up saw him killing a neighbour as a child, becoming embroiled in both sides of the Spanish civil war as a young man and casually helping to invent the atom bomb as a fully grown destroyer of worlds.
While the brooding Scandi-noir of Stieg Larsson‘s fiction (along with TV hits such as Wallander and The Killing) has long been embraced in UK, it’s telling that British publishers were somewhat slow to pick up Jonasson’s source novel, a deal being struck only after several million copies had been sold in Europe. Written in the aftermath of a “tragic divorce”, the book is part embittered wish-fulfilment fantasy (who hasn’t longed to blow stuff up?), part latterday reworking of Voltaire’sCandide.The author describes his novel as “a hopeful satire on the shortcomings of mankind”, but like Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump, what’s on the page doesn’t necessarily match the tone of the screen incarnation. While Robert Zemeckis and writer Eric Roth were accused of deliberately misreading Groom’s source text in order to emphasise the more saccharine elements of Gump’s story, Herngren and co-writer Hans Ingemansson play up the “stupid is as stupid does” elements ofThe 100-Year-Old Man…, with oddly brittle (and often anarchically hopeless) results.
Musically, the film calls to mind the carnivalesque cinema of Emir Kusturica, an oompah soundtrack coming on like Danny Elfman taking a hammer to the main theme from Underground – all brassy inflections and drunken, semi-tonal shifts, merrily harrumphing through tragicomic spells in the gulags and absurdist adventures in the cold war. Whatever is happening on screen, the score reminds us at every turn that this is meant to be funny, adding a honking “quack-quack-oops” to the straight-faced pratfalls of Gustafsson who has earned himself the oddly deflating title of “the funniest man in Sweden”.
It’s tempting, too, to draw comparisons with the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, from the darkly mechanical shenanigans of his early collaborations with Marc Caro (most notably Delicatessen) to the wilful whimsy of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet with which this shares a deliberately cumbersome title and askance worldview. (We could also throw in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events to complete the weirdly wordy triple-bill.)
But unlike Jeunet’s visually arresting back catalogue, Herngren’s movie has little to dazzle the eye, despite the parade of elephants, submarines and atom bombs with which Allan inevitably finds himself surrounded. Just as the increasingly unsympathetic title character responds to the chaos around him with utter indifference, so the movie occasionally runs the risk of provoking a similar response in its audience, particularly those who don’t get the joke.
What we’re left with is a peculiar example of the regional specificity of humour; a reminder that there’s nothing so particular as that which makes a nation laugh. While Scandinavian doom and gloom remains a saleable commodity in the UK, Swedish humour appears to travel less well and it seems unlikely that the success that this ambitiously ramshackle picture has enjoyed elsewhere will be matched on these shores. For all its box-office busting merits, the result is lessUntouchable than Untranslatable.