Norwegian Odd Couple

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 13, 2002

IT doesn't take much, apparently, to get a state-subsidized apartment and a monthly stipend out of the Norwegian government. Being a middle-aged virgin would appear to be enough of a disability -- at least according to "Elling," a charming but slight comedy about a pair of odd-couple wards of the state whose handicaps (mostly unspecified, save for the aforementioned condition) prevent their living on their own.

Okay, okay, so one of them, a filthy, long-haired giant named Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) also has a bit of a hygiene problem, and the other, the titular Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) is an agoraphobic mama's boy with an aversion to answering the phone. Elsewhere (say, England, for instance), I wonder whether these impairments wouldn't be looked upon as mere eccentricities, and mild ones at that.

Be that as it may, in the film from theater director Petter Naess, adapted by screenwriter Axel Hellstenius from Ingvar Ambjornsen's best-selling novel, Elling and his roomie (who, like Charlie Brown, is always referred to by his first and last name) find themselves in a modest Oslo apartment after being released from a period of institutionalization. A period, I might add, during which they seem not to have been given any therapeutic help whatsoever.

Just shopping brings on panic attacks for Elling, a squirrelly elf of a man given to poetry and with a penchant for telling Kjell Bjarne sexual tall tales as they drift off to sleep in their adjacent single beds. A social worker (Jorgen Langhelle) stops by periodically to yell at his charges in what must be some form of Scandinavian tough love, but offers little in the way of concrete guidance.

Left pretty much to their own devices, Elling and Kjell Bjarne gradually begin to engage with the outside world. Elling is soon befriended by an elderly poet (Per Christensen) he meets at a reading at a bar, and he is soon slipping his verse into packages of sauerkraut at the local market. Kjell Bjarne, meanwhile, enters into an awkward but touching romance with a pregnant neighbor (Marit Pia Jacobsen).

While there is much pleasure -- and amusement -- to be derived from watching these two wallflowers blossom in this Oscar-nominated film, there's also something a little too twee about them. Aside from Kjell Bjarne's habit of banging his head against the wall, there's nothing sad or scary about their handicaps, which can suggest forms of mental retardation and severe neurosis, although neither diagnosis is ever explicitly stated in the film.

They're the cute kind of defective, straight out of Central Casting, and while they might remind some of the posse that hung out with Sean Penn in the embarrassing "I Am Sam," the time spent with these two misfits is far better spent.

ELLING (R, 90 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual content. In Norwegian with subtitles. At Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row Cinema, Cinema Arts Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company