Us and Them
Kevin Spacey recently optioned the rights to remake the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film Elling, and I can just hear the Hollywood pitch. "It's The Odd Couple meets Rain Man! Two mental cases--one dumb and sex-obsessed, and the other anal and anxious--suddenly find themselves living on their own. They bicker and slam their heads against walls--hilarious!--and help each other find a place in the normal world. Frickin' heartwarming!" Yes, it's the mad/old/colored/gay/etc.-people-are-just-like-us movie, with its two scoops of ridicule and sentimentality (e.g., The Birdcage, Grumpy Old Men, etc.). I had wanted to believe we were past that.
So why did I enjoy Elling so much? How could I "laugh out loud" and feel fuzzily triumphant at the end? Is it because I'm part of the "us" (white, middle-class, educated) entertained by the strange antics of "them" (everyone else) while being assured of my great tolerance and compassion? There's a scene in Elling where a restaurantful of normal folks grant a standing ovation to the two misfits, Elling and Kjell Bjarne. There's always a scene of public acceptance in those-people-are-just-like-us movies: It's supposed to make the "misfits" (and the audience) forget about all the snotty looks and irritated condescension dished out by the "normals" up to that point. I still don't buy it.
But I did buy Per Christian Ellefsen's performance as Elling, a small, taut man who apparently lived 40 years with his mother without often leaving the house. Ellefsen has deep eyes that reveal layer upon layer of fear, humiliation, self-justification, intelligence, and sensitivity--sometimes all at once, like a cutaway of hillside sediment. Elling provides the movie's voiceover and most of the funniest lines, and Ellefsen's pinched delivery underscores each joke with a hidden realm of emotion. "Mother handled practical matters at home," says Elling. "I was in charge of ideology." Ellefsen conveys both that line's self-importance and its wistfulness--the longing for a place, a place of significance, in the world.
Sven Nordin has a far thinner role as the horny, good-natured giant Kjell Bjarne. The film hints at Kjell's backstory: alcoholic and abusive parents, lack of social skills leading to institutionalization (or vice versa). When Kjell messes up, he bangs a fist or a head against a wall. His greatest goal is to have sex for the first time. His dearest possession: a toolbox. Mostly Kjell sets up Elling's witty one-liners. Yet Nordin walks a tightrope over the pit of stereotype, thanks to his very size. Kjell Bjarne is a Viking, an epic even in his confusion, a man who in another time would've ignited history, rather than dead Buicks. Nordin's ax-head of a face and vulnerable eyes woo the viewer as much as they do a pregnant neighbor nursed back from abandoned drunkenness by the gentle Kjell.
The tie between Elling and Kjell is easy: We're used to seeing opposites attract and even complement each other. And Ellefsen and Nordin, who originated these roles onstage, grumble and mumble so well together that I can hardly imagine them apart--something the movie acknowledges with a hop, skip, and a jump through the whole "getting to know you" rigmarole. It's tougher to create believable foils from the "normal" world: The eager neighbor, Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen), the impatient social worker, Frank (Jorgen Langhelle), and Alfons (Per Christensen), the esteemed old poet who befriends Elling, come across as paper-thin constructions given a little weight by the actors. Clueless Reidun's neediness is motivation enough. But why intellectual Alfons takes up with someone he identifies as "crazy" isn't sufficiently explained by his perpetual amusement.
Or maybe it is. According to the press kit, director Petter Næss and screenwriter Axel Hellstenius added the Alfons character to fill out their stage adaptation of Ingvar Ambjørnsen's novel for the film. Perhaps Alfons represents "us"--we in the audience who pay for the "crazies" to amuse us with their startling revelations and move us with their unexpected talents. Perhaps Alfons sees a little of himself in the other--enough to calm and support Elling as he redirects his otherness to more socially acceptable, if still eccentric, effect. If so, it's more than I'm doing, sitting here watching Elling, and laughing.
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