For all of us who feel Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump is a sentimental, condescending insult to cinema audiences everywhere, and Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a helluvalot better, we finally have an entry into ‘the man who bumbles through history’ nano-genre to call our own. Do not let the maladroit title fool you, Felix Herngren’s big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel by Jonas Jonasson, is a Swiss fucking watch in the plotting department, and savagely amusing in its come-what-may temperament. it sneaks up on you in similar ways as Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters even as it dazzles with the sweep of history.
After a tone-setting and highly unfortunate incident involving a sweet kitty, a hungry fox and a bundle of dynamite, one of cinemas strangest heroes, Allan Karlsson, finds himself confined to a retirement home on the eve his centenary year on this little planet called Earth. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared (hereafter The Hundred Year Old Man) is the delightfully absurd story of our eponymous very senior citizen who does indeed bail out the open glass portal of his tiny room right on the day while the nurses are attempting to count and light all those candles on his marzipan cake, but it is also the story of us as a conflicted and nutty species.
In surprisingly good health, and armed with only the simple intention of hopping on the nearest train to anywhere; or as the case may be, nowhere, which we will learn, is a highly underrated place to be. But due to a comical bit of mishap-ery involving an angry skinhead and a tiny train station bathroom, Karlsson finds himself in possession of a large suitcase full of money. With any found bag of money, comes pursuit and here it is in the form Swedish biker thugs and an angry British gangster shouting at them in Bali. In short order, we find Karlsson, in his rather zen and unhurried fashion (“life is what it is, and does what it does”), travelling across the Swedish countryside, gathering an odd collection of friends, another old man who lives in an abandoned train station (and possibly the only resident of a town called Byringe) and a 35 year old student who perhaps as the largest number of University credits on the planet (in his own words he is “almost a lot of things”.) Friendship is cool, but they are also more than a little interested in the 50 million euros that Karlsson is carting around.
Just when think you have Karl figured out, he pops someone over the head and ships their corpse to Egypt, so, suffice it to say, the film keeps you on your toes in terms of plot and character.
If it were only the criminal confusion, clueless coppers and comic coincidence with a growing body count, The Hundred Year Old Man would more or less be a Guy Ritchie flick (note: Alan Ford, who played Brick Top in Snatch here is the London baddie in Bali), albeit with a drier Swedish humour. But things get interesting, expensive and very explosive as we flash back to Karlsson’s unique and pathologically significant life. He accidentally saved Franco from a bridge demolition in the Spanish Civil War, contributed to both the American and Russian nuclear bomb program, almost single handedly starting the cold war, and comically might have been key in ending it by catching Ronald Reagan at the wrong moment. The movie, dripping with that special kind of Scandinavian wit, offers an entirely human-nature bit of revisionism as to why the Berlin Wall was torn down.
A life lived well, not straining too hard against the universe, and simply letting things happen, it covers nearly the entire breadth of the 20th century history. These flashback vignettes are invigorating, absurd and violent, just as the details of history, are if you are close to the ground. All Karlsson has ever wanted to do during these historic moments is have a drink, do some work and take the occasional photo, but that doesn’t stop his life from being swept into many crazy situations involving cocktails, cossack dancing with Josef Stalin, clandestine trips in U-Boats, imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag with Albert Einstein’s clueless brother, Herbert. Even a throwaway job having lunch while building the Empire State Building (watch for the hammer!) yields effortless comic timing.
The Hundred Year Old Man winningly posits that we are all photographers of our own lives; our memories and experiences can be futilely sculpted into something that is just as transient as something a little more shapeless with markedly less stress and more time to have a nip of vodka and simply allow things to happen. If the film offers advice, it is this: Watch the road while you are driving. Be careful where you pee. Don’t shoot a pistol at a Elephant. And, there is always a tomorrow, so, keep your your head up and we’ll see you next Wednesday.