Humour notoriously doesn’t travel well, but rarely have I seen a comedy quite as unfunny as Felix Herngren’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, based on Jonas Jonasson’s Swedish bestseller. There are indications throughout that this is meant to be a jolly romp: an oompa-oompa score, some slapstick involving a circus elephant, a string of cheerfully shrugged-off deaths.
But in the course of its 112 minutes, I laughed once, at the minor character of Herbert Einstein (David Shackleton), who looks like his brother Albert but has none of the smarts. Mel Brooks might have thought of that, though not on one of his good days.
The subject is, well, exactly what it says on the tin. Allan Karlsson is a roguish centenarian – played by 49-year-old comic Robert Gustafsson in frog-like make-up – who climbs out the window of the old folks’ home where he lives and makes off with a suitcase of cash, launching him on a series of adventures that introduce him to a new set of misfit friends.
Karlsson’s daffiness might be ascribed to senility but he has always been a kind of idiot savant. Flashbacks show him bumbling through the 20th century in the manner of Forrest Gump, exerting a strong, though accidental, influence on the course of history.
While certainly an innocent, Karlsson isn’t precisely a nice guy: his great obsession is dynamite and his associates tend to come to sticky ends. Sometimes this could be described as poetic justice, but not once, even when he helps to invent the atom bomb, do his actions cause him the slightest guilt. In some sense, clearly, he represents Sweden itself, and the Swedish policy of neutrality in place for most of the 20th century, which, today, can hardly be regarded with unmixed pride.
It’s a theme that persists as a painful subtext in much Swedish genre fiction, including The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But this film is evasive by comparison: in America for much of World War II, Karlsson avoids dealing directly with the Nazis, which is more than Swedish business interests were able to do at the time. Meanwhile, the present-day sequences place him firmly on the side of virtue, as he becomes the nemesis of a gang of neo-Nazi crooks; a conception that suggests compensatory fantasy rather than cleansing satire.