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ELLING(director: Petter Næss; screenwriters: from the novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen/Axel Hellstenius; cinematographer: Svein Krøvel; editor: Inge-Lise Langfeldt; music: Lars Lillo-Stenberg; cast: Per Christian Ellefsen (Elling), Sven Nordin (Kjell Bjarne), Marit Pia Jacobsen (Reidun Nordsletten), Jørgen Langhelle (Frank Åsli), Per Christensen (Alfons Jørgensen), Hilde Olausson (Gunn); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Dag Alveberg; First Look Pictures; 2001-Norway-with English subtitles)
“The pleasing acting jobs by the two protagonists makes all this sugar easier to swallow, but not enough to find this film anything more than a mere diversion.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A breezy Norwegian feel-good comedy revolving around two middle-aged mentally challenged characters who make for an odd couple, Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordinwho). They roomed together for two years in a small town nuthouse and have been setup by the state with an apartment in Oslo to see if they can live on their own and cope with everyday life. They are under the supervision of a chain-smoking social worker named Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle), who tells them if they fail to take advantage of this opportunity there are many others waiting for this chance. Elling is directed by Petter Næss with sympathy for his principal characters and is based on the novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, and scripted by Axel Hellstenius. It’s a crowd-pleasing film based on a play that became very popular in Norway and was nominated in 2001 for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (don’t ask me why!). The characters are eccentric, disarmingly charming, without guile, and likable in their reluctant quest for independence. One would have to be a cad to dis them and the film’s good-natured humanistic storyline (but it’s fair to say this was at best mediocre fare). If you are looking for a safe subtitled vehicle to watch that shows how positive the system can be in helping those who need the most help, then this cable TV-like comedy should be as tasty a snack as hot dogs with relish (something Kjell chows down with all the gusto in the world).

The film begins with the death of Elling’s mother, which causes the 40-year-old’s nervous breakdown that requires him to be institutionalized. Elling has been a sheltered mama’s boy and prude all his life, and suffers from dizziness and anxiety whenever he tries to do anything on his own. Upon Elling’s release from the institution he is paired on the outside home with his institutional roommate Kjell, who has been locked up a long time and when angered bangs his head against the wall. Kjell is unfamiliar with the ways of the outside world and can’t relate with others. The gentle 240 pound lout who never stops eating and talking about women, dearly regrets that he’s still a virgin. These opposites find themselves scared to death to be on their own, to do their own grocery shopping, to use a phone, and to even talk to an outsider other than Frank. The men are too frightened to venture outside, especially the slightly built, opinionated, and fastidious Elling. So Kjell does the grocery shopping. But after they learn how to use the phone on the insistence of Frank, they pile up a $4,000 bill on phone sex. This was done to please the yearnings of Kjell and keep Elling from being forced to go on the prowl with his frustrated roommate. Since it’s a big deal for them to venture outside on their own, a moment of victory is acclaimed when they dine out in a fancy restaurant and the fussy Elling even manages to use the rest room. To top that off, they call Frank from the restaurant to tell them of their success.

On Christmas Eve a pregnant upstairs neighbor, Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), collapses in a drunken stupor on the stairs and Kjell carries her back to her flat. The baby’s father deserted the uneducated laundromat worker, and she invites Kjell and Elling for dinner to thank them from rescuing her. Kjell has fallen in love with her and she with him, but he’s too scared to talk to her. Elling has become jealous that he will lose his friend to her, so he has a defining moment and believes he’s a poet after he jots down a few words about the drunken lady’s fall. He therefore refuses the dinner invite and ventures out on his own to a poetry reading in a nightclub. Elling’s disgusted with the vulgarity at the poetry recital, but to his surprise he befriends a friendly older man at the club, Alfons Jørgensen (Per Christensen), and makes friends with the only one he has ever met on his own. When Alfons sprains his ankle, he calls Elling to do his shopping for him. It turns out that Alfons was once a well-known poet but life stopped for him in 1979 when his wife died. Also, his vintage 1958 Buick Century was never used since 1979, but the car fascinates Kjell. He turns out to be an excellent mechanic and fixes it, and as a result Alfons invites his new weirdo friends out to his country cabin. Reidun while there has labor pains and is rushed to the hospital and gives birth to a healthy girl, as Elling and Kjell await the news in a nightclub and get drunk on wine. When Frank comes by the next morning and sees the apartment a mess and vomit all over it, he considers his tough-love mission a success and declares the men ready to live on their own. Now that Kjell is moving toward a real relationship with Reidun, Elling finds solace in his poetry. He has secretly placed his poems in packages of sauerkraut in the grocery store and the timid neurotic hopes to earn a reputation as the mysterious “Sauerkraut Poet.”

It’s pleasantly done without any preaching or lessons or clinical explanations thrown in. The comedy springs from the contrasting images the two portray and their clashes over an orderly and messy lifestyle. The film suffers because it’s way too cute without any substance and the characters seem to suffer more from their neurotic quirks and of being social misfits than from any mental illness, which makes you wonder why they were in an institution in the first place (at least they weren’t written off with a series of prescription drugs, as they undoubtedly would have been in America). The pleasing acting jobs by the two protagonists makes all this sugar easier to swallow, but not enough to find this film anything more than a mere diversion.

REVIEWED ON 2/13/2003 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”