A former criminal, fresh from the slammer, tries going straight in a world that won’t believe he’s changed in the droll, somewhat-but-not-entirely-black comedy “A Somewhat Gentle Man.” A reteaming between Swedish lead thesp Stellan Skarsgard and Norwegian helmer Hans Petter Moland, who collaborated on “Zero Kelvin” and “Aberdeen,” pic reps the best thing either has done for a while, partially thanks to a wry screenplay
by prolific Danish scribe Kim Fupz Aakeson and supporting ensemble’s pitch-perfect comic timing. “Man” is sure to be a moderate hit in Scandinavia, with some appeal offshore for upscale auds.
Mullet-coiffed Ulrik (Skarsgard) is the kind of nice guy to whom prison guards give bottles of wine as going-away presents when he checks out of the joint. It’s revealed fairly early on that he just did a 12-year stretch for murder, although the crime’s finer details are only explained later.
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Ulrik checks in with his former boss Rune Jensen (Bjorn Floberg), a one-time kingpin in the Norwegian crime world but who’s now down to just one doofus of a henchman, Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold). Rune gets Ulrik a cell-like room at his lumpy, taciturn sister Karen Margrethe’s (Jorunn Kjellsby) place, and a job as a mechanic working for garage owner Sven (Bjorn Sundquist, whose machine-gun-style line deliveries rep just one of the pic’s many comic highlights.) The catch is that Rune expects Ulrik to kill Kenny (Henrik Mestad), who snitched on Ulrik and sent him to prison years back, for the sake of Rune’s own honor as much as Ulrik’s.
In no great rush to reap revenge, Ulrik catches up with his ex-wife Wenche (Kjersti Holmen), who’s moved on but is happy enough to have a quickie with him, and his son Geir (Jan Gunnar Roise), who was only 13 when Ulrik went to prison. With a budding career as an electrical engineer and a baby on the way with his partner Silje (Julia Bache Wiig), Geir is wary of letting Ulrik back in his life, especially as he’s told Silje his father was dead.
Ulrik starts to enjoy the simple pleasures of normal life, like eating home-cooked meals, trying to figure out what’s happening on the only TV station he gets clearly, which happens to be in Polish, and fielding offers of sex from a number of surprising quarters. Most important, the chance to rebuild his relationship with Geir and his new family cools him even further on the risk of going back inside if he kills Kenny. But Rune won’t take no for an answer.
With its off-the-wall-and-well-out-the-door humor, flashes of violence and broad-brushed, quirky personalities, the pic feels almost like an homage to older Coen brothers movies (they might as well retitle it “A Somewhat Serious Man” and be done with it). At the same time, the characters’ distinctive genial gruffness and adherence to bourgeois propriety even in the shabbiest circumstances, and the underplayed comedy throughout, mark the pic’s sensibility as distinctly Scandinavian. Helmer Molland seems to have got his mojo back after his disappointing, tonally uneven last “Comrade Pedersen,” and displays here an airy lightness rarely glimpsed before in his work.
Likewise, it’s a particular pleasure to see Skarsgard centerstage for a change after a long run of character roles in Hollywood fare, particularly the frothy likes of “Mamma Mia!” and “Angels and Demons,” in which his talents have been a little wasted. He anchors “Man” with morose docility, a gentleness per the title, that beautifully sets off the rest of the ensemble’s flashier displays. Props are due particularly to Kjellsby for her unabashedly carnal turn, and to Jannike Kruse as a man-wary, damaged secretary who shows romantic interest in Ulrik.
Pic’s only real flaw is that it’s a little overlong, and might have been even more effective with a brisker running time. Auds will debate post-screening whether last reel twist dilutes sympathy for the protagonist, although it’s a very Coen brothers-style touch.
Otherwise, craft contributions are pro throughout. Jaunty, mambo-inflected score by Halfdan E deserves praise, as do the subtly meaningful choice of pop tunes (“Angel of the Morning,” “I Shot the Sherriff,” and so on) that are heard distorted through radios throughout the story.