A Pair of Misfits Make Good, Thanks to a Caring Welfare State

Peter Næss’ Elling , from a screenplay by Axel Hellstenius and Mr. Næss, based on the novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, was the Norwegian nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2001 Academy Awards. It emerges finally in regular release as a singularly affecting and amusing fable of two misfits who awkwardly find fulfillment within the matrix of a wondrously caring welfare state that makes the good old U.S.A. look cold and cruel by comparison.

Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) bond together as bunkmates in an institution for the care of adults who are inadequately socialized, though not mentally ill or deficient. The comparatively diminutive and articulate Elling, a self-professed mama’s boy, has been left in a helpless state by the death of his mother. Yet Elling becomes the point-of-view character with his own monologues to help explain the strange workings of his big, oafish companion’s otherwise inexpressible mind. Bjarne has never slept with a woman, but can’t ever think of anything else. Elling is similarly virginal, but has made up stories of imaginary exploits with the opposite sex. Bjarne loves to listen to Elling’s stories, even after other inmates tell him that they are pure figments of Elling’s imagination. There’s a bit of George and Lenny here from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men .

When Elling and Bjarne are placed in an apartment in Oslo with enough funds to fend for themselves, they’re each given a separate bedroom. No matter. The first thing they do is move their beds into the same room. For these boon companions, privacy is an unacceptable alternative to companionship. Still, their early efforts at self-sufficiency are stymied by Elling’s refusal to answer the telephone when it rings, and his reluctance to leave the apartment to shop for food. In these respects, Bjarne adjusts more quickly than Elling.

One night Bjarne discovers an unconscious drunken woman on the staircase and carries her up to her room, where he ascertains that she is pregnant. When she regains consciousness, she takes a liking to Bjarne, but he can’t think of a thing to say to her and rushes downstairs to ask Elling for assistance. Elling refuses, sensing that the woman is the snake in their Garden of Eden, a threat to their shared existence. Yet when the woman, Reidun Nords-letten (Marit Pia Jacobsen), invites them both to dinner, and asks Elling if Bjarne loves her, Elling gallantly answers in the affirmative. He has accepted the inevitable, and proceeds to develop a separate life as a poet. He attends a late-night hippie poetry reading, the vulgarity and obscenity of which makes the sheltered Elling throw up in the toilet.

After the reading, Elling befriends an old man named Alfons Jørgensen, whom he of course fails to recognize as one of Oslo’s literary lights. Social worker Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle) enlightens Elling on that score, after which Alfons joins Elling, Bjarne and Reidun in a family circle. Alfons has been widowed for a long time, and his automobile has fallen into disrepair. Here Bjarne reveals his expertise with engines, the product of a long-ago apprenticeship, and with the car in working order, Alfons takes his new “family” to his country estate, where Reidun begins delivering her baby. Bjarne is ecstatic at the prospect of fathering a baby girl; for his part, Elling is content to function as an anonymous poet.

In short, there’s not a mean bone in this narrative. Many may deplore what they see as the film’s sentimentality. Hope is writ large here, as two characters who could easily have been frozen into clownish grimaces of farcical folly rise instead to unveil hidden talents useful in the real world. In these times of despair and despondency, one may choose, as I have, to regard Elling as a happy surprise from an apparently uncongenial premise.

Arkin Ascendant

Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations About One Thing , from a screenplay by Karen and Jill Sprecher, has more in common with the pair’s Clockwatchers (1997) than might at first be evident. In both films, characters are defined and their fate determined, at least partially, by the time they spend trapped in the workplace. The most striking and most insightfully etched character in Conversations is Alan Arkin’s Gene, a supervisory claims adjuster for an insurance company. A congenital pessimist, Gene is enraged by an ebullient co-worker, Dick (Frankie Faison), who seems incapable of letting anything erase his perpetual smile.

Gene gratuitously fires Dick just to see if this setback will make him bitter and disillusioned. As it turns out, Dick has the last laugh, literally and figuratively, because of an interesting turnabout in Gene’s complex character. Mr. Arkin deserves some kind of lifetime Oscar for reaching new heights in what might have been the twilight of his career. The Sprecher sisters deserve credit also for creating the richly nuanced character Mr. Arkin plays.

The other characters, however, are comparatively one-dimensional as they skate on the perilously thin ice of the film’s contrivances and coincidences. The most malignant character is John Turturro’s Walker, a callous academic (at Columbia University, no less!) who abandons his wife and indirectly causes a distraught student to commit suicide. Clea DuVall’s cleaning woman Beatrice is at the other end of life’s lottery, a consummate victim. In between are a range of somber sufferers played by Amy Irving, Barbara Sukowa, Tia Texada and, most histrionically, Matthew McConaughey as a smug, complacent bright light in the district attorney’s office who’s brought down by his own conscience after he flees the scene of a hit-and-run accident.

There’s something both refreshingly old-fashioned and insightfully contemporary in the vision of the Sprecher co-auteuresses. At one and the same time, they confront the exigencies of making a living in our society while allowing space and time for characters to grow and blossom as they follow the dictates of their souls. This is to say that the Sprecher sisters like people enough to rejoice in their happiness and commiserate with their sorrows, and they should certainly be encouraged to keep on making movies.

Acting of Exactitude

Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest , from his own screenplay, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, had already been lambasted by most of my colleagues before I dropped in to see it at a noon screening. I suppose when you expect nothing, you’re satisfied with very little, and so I didn’t feel that my time was entirely wasted. Still, though Mr. Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest is pleasant enough in its casting and performances, it doesn’t work as it should-and neither did Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film version, despite the presence in the cast of Michael Redgrave, Joan Greenwood and Dame Edith Evans. Indeed, the only production of Earnest that did work for me was a John Gielgud stage production in New York I saw long ago. I can still hear in my mind’s ear Gielgud’s exquisite tribute to cucumber sandwiches.

The point is that Earnest can never work in movies because (a) it requires a consistently artificial style of acting, and (b) the cinema’s addiction to deadly reaction shots kills all the wit. Why should we react to the lines when someone on-screen is doing it for us? The wittiest and most profound description of Earnest was coined by Louis Kronenberger at Columbia in a dramatic literature course I took back in the early 50’s: “Everything counts, and nothing matters.” This implies an airiness impossible to achieve with the inescapable realism inherent in the film image.

To make matters worse, Mr. Parker added some weird business with tattoos, and at times seemed to be striving to make Earnest into a full-fledged movie musical. Still, the ensemble is not without its incidental virtues. Frances O’Connor as Gwendolen and Reese Witherspoon as Cecily are about as good as you can get these days. Actually, I felt at the time that Joan Greenwood’s delicious trick voice was a distraction from the Wildean deadpan style in Asquith’s 1952 Earnest . (Nonetheless, in the all-time pantheon of trick voices, Ms. Greenwood ranks at least fourth behind Margaret Sullavan, Glynis Johns and Jean Arthur.) Ms. Witherspoon demonstrates that she can do a British accent as well as Renée Zellweger did in last year’s Bridget Jones’s Diary , and she projects much of Dorothy Tutin’s sly innocence as Cecily in the 1952 Earnest.

Wilde’s covertly gay subtext in the play (Bunbury, anyone?) is promoted by the mere fact of casting the publicly uncloseted Rupert Everett as the impecunious Algy. Back in 1952, most everyone was locked in the closet, and no one talked about gay subtexts even in connection with Earnest and its author, once famously imprisoned in Reading Gaol. Nowadays, all the grappling between Colin Firth’s Jack and Mr. Everett’s Algy seems overloaded with double meaning.

Truth to tell, I was never overwhelmed by the sonorous Lady Bracknell of Dame Edith Evans. I preferred the Lady Bracknell of Margaret Rutherford on the stage. Years ago, Dame Judi Dench is reputed to have presented the definitive Lady Bracknell on the stage. I remain skeptical of Dame Judi as Lady Bracknell: The actress seems too deeply practical and earthy for the character. Anna Massey is an interestingly unconventional Ms. Prism, but Tom Wilkinson seems overqualified for the role of Dr. Chasuble. Edward Fox, however, made me laugh out loud as the butler Lane. His backwardly upward walk was just right for the part, and demonstrated the beauty in acting of exactitude.

Should Earnest have been filmed at all? I think so. I have made it a point never to miss anything with Ms. O’Connor in the cast, and Ms. Witherspoon is not far behind on my must-see list. Right now, I am impatiently awaiting the next screen appearance of both Ms. Zellweger and Kate Winslet. That’s what movies are for, especially these days when the actors and actresses are mostly more interesting than the movies in which they appear. Oh, and add Kirsten Dunst to my list. How dare Spider-Man walk away from her! A Pair of Misfits Make Good, Thanks to a Caring Welfare State