Like a less curmudgeonly, more Scandinavian version of Doc Martin

Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove
Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove

By Richard Ades

Fans of the British TV series Doc Martin know grumpy heroes can be both endearing and entertaining. Now we have a Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove, that aims to prove they can be just as endearing and entertaining in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road.

If the flick doesn’t succeed quite as brilliantly, it’s because director/screenwriter Hannes Holm doesn’t have the series’ knack for tickling us with quirky comedy before surprising us with heart-stopping suspense or heartwarming drama. The film, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, takes a more direct route to our emotions.

We first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgard) when he’s haggling with a store clerk over the price of a bouquet of flowers. He comes off as an unreasonable, disagreeable curmudgeon. Then, in the next scene, we realize he bought the flowers to take to his late wife’s grave. Oops. I guess we should give the old guy a break.

Another reason for pitying him arrives when his young bosses call him into their office and pretend they’re doing him a favor by laying him off from the company where he’s worked for 43 years. Little wonder that Ove—wifeless, friendless and now jobless—is soon attempting suicide. The only thing that stops him is the arrival of a new family of neighbors led by Parvanah (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Iranian immigrant who immediately begins inserting herself into Ove’s lonely existence.

From this point on, the film revolves on the question of whether the friendly Parvanah will succeed in renewing Ove’s interest in the world and those who share it. Though he continues trying to join his wife in the great beyond, the film gives us little reason for pessimism. For one thing, Parvanah is such a bubbly force of nature that it’s impossible to believe he can resist her for long. For another, numerous episodes reveal that Ove is far less misanthropic than he pretends to be.

One such incident involves another Doc Martin parallel: Just as Martin is bedeviled by a homeless dog that refuses to leave him alone, Ove is bedeviled by a fluffy homeless cat. Yet as soon as the cat is threatened, he comes to its rescue.

Other scenes depict Ove as downright heroic. At times, when he alone steps forward to prevent a tragedy, he appears to be the only heroic person in Sweden.

Through much of the film, incidents from Ove’s current life are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood. The most charming of these depict how he met Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the outgoing woman who became his wife. The most puzzling involves an encounter with one of the dictatorial officials he refers to as “whiteshirts.”

The flashbacks show the developments that helped to turn Ove into the sad individual he’s become, but in the process they give the film an episodic structure. They also reinforce the flick’s tendency toward heavy-handed melodrama.

Though flawed, A Man Called Ove paints a warm portrait of an aging individual who’s given a well-deserved second chance at life. As a popular example of modern Swedish cinema—it’s the country’s nominee for a Foreign Language Film Oscar—it may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the dour works of Ingmar Bergman.

As for fans of Doc Martin who are looking for an emergency dose of curmudgeonhood, they’ll probably be less satisfied. Fortunately for them, an eighth (and supposedly last) season is set to air next year.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

A Man Called Ove, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Oct. 21) at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley.

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Tending a plant that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer

Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Skid Row isn’t the best location for a flower shop. That’s the conclusion store owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Cardinal) reaches following a sales-less day in Little Shop of Horrors.

Luckily, store clerk Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) discovers a mysterious plant that soon has customers flocking to their door. Well, maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word, since Seymour quickly learns that the plant thrives only when it gets a steady supply of its favorite food: human blood.

Based on a low-budget 1960 film, the stage musical opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 but was soon transplanted to Broadway, where it bloomed into a five-year hit. Its success is mostly due to the sparking collection of rock, pop and blues songs written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Though obviously darker than those family-friendly flicks, the musical shares a seed of humanity and a sense of fun that prevent it from becoming too macabre.

At Shadowbox, it’s hardly surprising that director Stev Guyer and his cast have no trouble with the musical numbers. The vocals are both strong and expressive, never allowing the characters’ personalities to get lost in the melodic underbrush. Accompanying them is a four-piece band that has a feel for the music, which often sounds like a holdover from rock’s innocent early years.

Between songs, the production mostly hits the right dramatic and comic notes.

Tomasacci wins our sympathy as Seymour, an orphan who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik as a child. As a result of his gratefulness and low self-esteem, Seymour feels unworthy of demanding better treatment from the employer who underpays and overworks him. And he feels even less worthy of the woman he secretly worships, fellow clerk Audrey (Edelyn Parker).

For her part, Audrey has even lower self-esteem, to the extent that she puts up with constant abuse from her sadistic dentist/boyfriend, Orin (Jamie Barrow). Parker plays Audrey as a stereotypical bimbo but with an undercurrent of longing that becomes palpable in the wistful ballad Somewhere That’s Green. Unfortunately, Parker adds a veneer of stagy melodrama by striking poses straight out of the silent-film era. It’s a puzzling choice that undercuts an otherwise sympathetic portrayal.

As Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist who’s never happy unless he’s making Audrey or his patients miserable, Barrow is like a less-scary version of Dennis Hopper’s maniac in Blue Velvet. He’s amusing, but a bit more menace would make him a better villain.

Then again, when it comes to menace and villainy, it would be hard to beat the bloodthirsty plant that Seymour names Audrey II. Depicted by puppets of ever-increasing sizes, it’s voiced by Billy DePetro in raucous tones that suggest an evil radio deejay.

Helping to establish the neighborhood’s rundown character are a mostly silent wino (Brandon Anderson) and three spunky “urchins” (Noelle Grandison, Nikki Fagin and Ashley Pearce). The latter serve as a streetwise Greek chorus, commenting from the sidelines and occasionally breaking into song.

Watching a scene in which Seymour contemplates committing murder to feed the insatiable Audrey II, some may be reminded of a similar scene from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which a couple of local troupes revived in the spring. Though otherwise completely different, both musicals sport bloody plots driven by love: love lost in Sweeney Todd and love desired in Little Shop of Horrors.

That fertile bit of humanity, along with the hummable tunes, keeps Ashman and Menken’s cult hit from withering away on its farcical vine.

Little Shop of Horrors will be presented through Nov. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays (no shows Nov. 6 or 20), plus 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.