Like “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” Felix Herngren’s “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” sees the whimsical potential in a haiku-like title. And yet, the film that this irreverent and frequently outrageous Swedish seriocomedy most resembles is Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” being the decades-spanning account of a not-altogether-there centenarian whose exploits put him at the center of world events. Since its December 2013 domestic release, the film has sold more than a million tickets in its native Sweden, where lead actor Robert Gustafsson was already a beloved star, and it has gone on to delight young and old around the world under various twee titles. Arriving late to American shores, the kooky pic should be a welcome arthouse counter-programmer for those wary of heavier foreign imports.
The “Forrest Gump” comparisons are rather superficial, of course, although the basic premise — of a pudding-headed character who obliviously stumbles into moments of epic significance, often changing the course of history in the process — is roughly the same. While Gump shook hands with presidents and fought in Vietnam, his Scandi counterpart was having an even bigger impact, enlisting in the Spanish Civil War and selling nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Also like Gump, his story derives from an appalling bestseller, transformed into a clever and thoroughly crowdpleasing bigscreen experience.
Rendered virtually inexpressive under a thick layer of prosthetic makeup, Gustafsson plays Allan Karlsson, a lifelong explosives enthusiast who refuses to celebrate his 100th birthday. Confined to the retirement home after a pyrotechnics stunt goes wrong at home (the movie’s first joke, involving revenge upon a fox, scores by far its biggest laugh), Allan feels certain that his life’s adventures aren’t over quite yet, and he’s right. Though flashbacks reveal him to have experienced far more than the average human, Allan’s window escape results in an equally overloaded sequence of events in which he inherits a suitcase full of loot, only to contend with a dangerous biker gang, an angry mobster and a rogue elephant.
Herngren and co-writer Hans Ingemansson have tamed the more unruly aspects of Jonas Jonasson’s novel, managing to tread the fine line between slapstick and sentiment — a balance reinforced by Matti Bye’s music, which sounds like something one might hear at a carnival, or perhaps a Fellini movie. The script never quite succeeds in making us care about Allan as a character (despite dubbing its quavering narration into English for the ease of American auds), but it finds an interesting balance for a personality who leaves a trail of disaster in his wake: The trick is to make Allan oblivious to his own behavior, and therefore less irksome to audiences than he is to anyone immediately affected by his actions — including the great number of unlucky people blown to smithereens by the bombs he’s so keen on building.
With no other skills or interests, Allan’s aptitude for ordnance sets the course of his life, leading him into Franco’s service in Spain. Later, he helps the Americans working on the Manhattan Project solve whatever was stumping them on their atomic bomb tests (they’re worried about science, while Allan merely wants to see the big boom). More explosions await in the Soviet gulag, where he meets Albert Einstein’s relatively dimwitted brother, Herbert.
It can be challenging at times to follow Allan’s world-traveling activities, if only because half our attention is focused on the present, which provides ample comedy to sustain the film, but is constantly being interrupted for non-sequitur flashbacks to his youth. All the back-and-forth between the two timeframes has a tendency to confuse, since 100-year-old Allan seems to have so little in common with the younger version of the character. The contempo bits actually feel the most old-fashioned, like something out of a classic Jonathan Winters movie, while Gustafsson’s interfering-with-history routine seldom amuses and reveals more obvious limitations in budget and production value, slowing down a movie that might have been more entertaining at 80 or 90 minutes.
With this project, Music Box Films has essentially acquired the polar opposite to its other Swedish hit, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” In both films, the protags end up filthy rich on tropical beaches, but here the joke is that Allan Karlsson is the unlikeliest and least cool character one could imagine to experience such a roller-coaster trip, especially at this late stage in his life. He’s essentially an overgrown kid — a courtesy that evidently extends to his endowment, marking one of the pic’s stranger preoccupations. When Allan is mistaken for mentally deficient and sterilized early on, the film appears to be making some sort of political statement, but it remains maddeningly vague about what, if anything, is wrong with the character. Instead, the story invites us to decide whether he’s the luckiest or unluckiest old man ever to have climbed out the window and disappeared.