Two Christian marriage counselors don’t exactly practice what they preach in the Swedish tragicomedy “A Rational Solution.” Tyro helmer Jorgen Bergmark and scribe Jens Jonsson prove that there’s still plenty of comic mileage and heartfelt drama to be mined from middle-age marital infidelity, and they give four of Sweden’s best thesps the opportunity to shine. Despite some problems in the later reels, this “Solution” should be a crowdpleaser at home and at fests. Commercial prospects in Euro territories also look promising, while remake potential should put it on the radar Stateside.
In Sundance prizewinner “King of Ping Pong,” writer-director Jonsson observed his cold protags from a safe distance. In “A Rational Solution,” he goes the opposite route, positively embracing the four leads; the result is a comedy-drama that is a lot warmer and easier to love. The humor also profits from this shift, going from chuckle-inducing but often unexplained quirks in “Ping Pong” to laugh-out-loud observations of oh-so human behavior here.
Middle-aged Erland (vet thesp Rolf Lassgard, “After the Wedding”) works at a paper mill in a small industrial town with his best friend, Sven-Erik (Claes Ljungmark). He also volunteers as a marriage counselor with his other half, May (Stina Ekblad, “Fanny and Alexander”), at the local church. Sven-Erik has succeeded in convincing his new wife, Karin (Pernilla August), to tag along to the “good marriage” sessions, even despite the fact she’s not religious.
Though May and Karin are very different, they bond during the preparations for Erland’s birthday. At the party, Erland and Karin also connect, and before the two know it, common decency and the teachings of Erland and May’s marriage course are out the window. (Though religion is not a major source of conflict, what is there is handled with a not-too-disrespectful Euro-liberal attitude.
The film’s strongest suit is the way Jonsson, Bergmark and the actors shift gears between the finely calibrated moments of emotional honesty and the generally hilarious proceedings. In the first hour, especially, the film effortlessly alternates or combines elements of both, most memorably in a supermarket parking lot where Erland and Karin can’t contain themselves, and a deceptively simple but heartbreaking scene in which May asks Erland whether he still loves her while they brush their teeth.
The rational solution of the title is a simple one: Erland suggests that Sven-Erik and Karin move in, as Erland believes the fiery passion between him and Karin might die down when its setting is a simple domestic environment rather than an illicit affair occurring in saunas and behind the garden shed.
Though the pic wrings plenty of humor from this unusual menage-a-quatre, the filmmakers seem unsure of the direction of their material, and the narrative strays into darker territory that doesn’t feel like a logical extension of what has come before. The last half-hour especially suffers before swooping down on a near-perfect finale.
Acting is superb. The characters are never less than recognizable human beings — rather than middle-aged caricatures stuck in a plot-warranted midlife crisis — and the humanity and strength of the perfs make the pic accessible to adult auds of all ages.
Editor Mattias Morheden’s precision cutting is key in making much of the humor work, while Peter Bavman’s production design leaves no doubt this story is set in Sweden; the pic’s two dominant hues are national colors blue and yellow. Nathan Larson’s nervously striding, judiciously placed score helps to keep most of the narrative at a fever pitch.