The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
I gave up on Jonas Jonasson’s novel before the halfway mark. While the premise held potential (an elderly Swedish fellow getting into scrapes, interspersed with flashbacks illustrating his – relatively – Forrest Gump/Zelig charmed life in which he just happens to show up at important historical events), the prose in translation (or maybe Jonasson’s prose is accurately rotten) did not. The film version is pretty much an approximation of the book, as far as I got to anyway. Its central conceit carries The 100- Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared along in blackly comic fashion, and it is affably eccentric albeit in a very studied way, but someone ought to have taken the novel as a jumping off point rather than diligently translating it. There’s precious little that’s fresh or original here.
Director Felix Herngren co-wrote the screenplay, so there merely adequate results are his by design. At times the comic rhythms click, as narrative punchlines are set up and pay off, but this is more thanks to Matti Bye’s quirky score than any zest imbued by Herngren and his editor. The plot wastes not time, but the director has little verve, as Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) escapes his old people’s home by the titular route and hops on the first bus out of town. It doesn’t take him very far because he doesn’t have very much money. That he knows about, anyway; asked to watch a suitcase by a particularly unpleasant skinhead who needs to relieve himself, Allan feels he has no choice but to board the bus with it. We later discover it contains 50 million krona, which of course means that the skinhead, and the gang he works for, want it back.
On his unplanned journey Allan meets various accomplices; Julius (Iwar Wiklander), a roguish type who lives in a disused station building; Benny (David Wiberg), who has begun numerous courses of study over the previous eighteen years and has nearly become qualified in a great many areas (including zoologist, dietician, vet, pharmacologist and neuropsychologist) but finds it impossible to decide on anything definite); and Gunilla, who owns a circus elephant.
This is a tale of lucky coincidence, in which a web of synchronicities lead our heroes to fortunate fates; even the negative turns of events have silver linings, and the villains are hoisted by the own petards (and basic stupidity). Allan walks through unscathed, perhaps because he was scathed as a youth when a “racial biologist” sterilised him. Allan contrasts with Forrest Gump in that he is not wholly the innocent; there is a canniness in there too (although he seems a tad more gumpish as a young man).
It’s been suggested that Allan is a metaphor for Sweden itself; an apparently neutral (neutered) individual who nevertheless has a capacity for supporting wrongfulness through profound passivity. Allan has a penchant for explosives, and is blithely indifferent to those on the receiving end of a blast. His mother’s advice that “Thinking will get you nowhere” means that he does not pause to contemplate or regret; he merely accepts. Allan shows up at, and gets involved in, various conflicts (the Spanish Civil War, followed by making pals with Franco, proving a key factor in the success of the Manhattan Project, spilling his beans to Stalin, and then becoming a double agent for the Americans), but he has allegiance to no one but himself.
In the context of the picture, this untouchable status is a positive; Allan endures where others do not. Those with a passion, or a cause (whatever their motives may be), fall by the wayside, while Allan (“You have changed the world for the better” Truman tells him following the atom bomb test) carries on untainted. Depending on the requirements of the sequence, Allan is unaware and guileless (his lack of self-effacement with dignitaries) or dubiously adept (acting as spymaster). He also shows no remorse for his actions, which means he is probably some sort of benign sociopath.
The flashbacks are marginal, and too perfunctory in duration and execution to hold much in the way of satirical intent or comic momentum (Einstein’s idiot brother; really?) Whether one likes the film or not, Forrest Gump had a lot going on under the lid (much of it contradictory, but at least that makes it interesting). 100 Year-Old-Man is never much more than a tall tale told tolerably.
The juxtaposition of our hapless quartet with a gang of pea-brained thugs yields fitfully amusing consequences. Allan Ford breaks out his cockney-gangster act (see Snatch) to reliable effect, and there’s a mild-mannered police detective (Ralph Carlsson) whose most agitated moment comes refusing to mention a radio show’s sponsor; “And I have a policeman here” segues a DJ who has just played Message in a Bottle.
The 100- Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is consistently so-so. It stands as the most successful Swedish film ever at $50m worldwide (don’t bother to Box Office Mojo it, though), but artistically it could have done with some with flair, someone to indulge the exaggeration (Sweden’s answer to Jean Pierre Jeunet?) and make it as heightened and off-the-wall as possible. And to really embrace the absurdity of the tour through history. Gustafsson is reasonable as the resolutely inscrutable lead, but he’s sunk under a ton of shockingly bad make-up. If you’re basing your film on a special effect it better be a good one. Gustafsson spends half the picture wandering around resembling Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max from The Princess Bride.