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The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
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The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I kept getting a 107-year-old man vibe from “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.”

Do you remember the 107-year-old man? He’s a character in Joseph Heller’s classic, absurdist, World War II novel “Catch-22,” who lives in a brothel in Rome and engages with the American servicemen he meets there. At one point, he tells Nately, a romantic, patriotic American, that Italy will win the war. Nately scoffs:

Written byFelix Herngren
Hans Ingemansson
Directed byFelix Herngren
StarringRobert Gustafsson
Iwar Wiklander
David Wiberg
Mia Skäringer

“Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don't call that doing very well, do you?”

“But of course I do,” exclaimed the old man cheerfully. “The Germans are being driven out, and we're still here. In a few years, you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that's what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well.”

Similarly, in “100-Year-Old Man … ,” those who shrug over life and politics keep on keeping on, while talkative true believers … Well, they don’t exactly live to be 100.

Half the movie is set in the present day, half 100 years of historical flashback narrated by the title character, Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), who’s not quite all there. He’s a bit of a dimwit. The first of these flashbacks takes place in 1909, as Allan’s father preaches incessantly on condoms as the best way to break free from oppression. Unfortunately, he does this, first, on Children’s Day, and second in Tsarist Russia, where he is quickly hauled away, still talking, before a firing squad. Even then he can’t stop blabbing. Finger raised, he adds, “Can I say something?” right before being shot dead. I laughed.

Later, a grown-up Allan, with a love of explosives, winds up heading to the Spanish Civil War in the company of Esteban (Maneul Dubra), a revolutionary who talks nonstop on the train, during training, and as they march. In the first battle of the war, he stands and shouts, “Viva la revolucion!” … and gets shot in the head: the war’s first casualty. I laughed again.

That’s the movie’s main lesson. “Thinking gets you nowhere,” Allan’s mother tells him on her deathbed. “Life is what it is, and will be what it will be.”

And that’s what I liked about “The 100-Year-Old Man ...” It’s dark, absurdist, and there’s a Mr. Magoo quality to Allan avoiding disasters, and having adventures, simply by continuing to move; by being and not thinking.

Unfortunately, there’s also a “Forrest Gump” quality to the movie.

Next stop: Malmköping

“The 100-Year-Old Man … ” begins with the title character (the 50-year-old Gustafsson slathered in latex) talking about how no one has meant more to him than his beloved cat, Molotov. But one night Molotov doesn’t come back, and the next morning he finds it by the woodshed, a victim of a neighborhood fox. Cut to: Allan wrapping sausages around a pack of dynamite. This act of retribution sends Allan to an old folk’s home, where the staff readies a party for his 100th birthday. Allan, in a less celebratory mood, and per the title, climbs out the window, then shuffles over to a nearby station and uses what money he has to buy a bus ticket to however far it’ll go. Which is Malmköping.

At the station, a short-tempered, burly bike-gang member can’t fit his wheelie suitcase into the bathroom with him and orders Allan to hold it and not let go. Allan follows this order even when his bus arrives; he simply takes the suitcase with him to Malmköping.

There, the station manager, Julius (Iwar Wiklander), engages with Allan, likes the cut of his jib, and offers food, drink and shelter. Meanwhile the bike-gang member comes roaring after his suitcase—which, yes, is full of drug money—but gets conked on the head by Allan and stuffed in a meat locker by Julius. Whoops, Julius leaves it at 20 below overnight. Now Julius and Allan are on the lam. Although I suppose Allan always was. And wasn’t.

In this manner, they pick up quirky compatriots and leave the dead bodies of gang members in their wake. My favorite of the compatriots is Benny (David Wiberg), a man so educated he can never make up his mind. He can’t even make up his mind on what degree to get. He’s almost a psychologist, almost a zoologist. “I’m almost a lot of things,” he says. Sometimes he can barely finish his sentences for all the gray areas he sees. His intelligence clogs his every waking moment. It’s a brilliant character and Wiberg plays him perfectly.

Meanwhile, the flashbacks. After Esteban’s death, Allan continues fighting for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, less for the Orwellian cause (he knows no cause) than for blowing things up. “I would eat and sleep and blow things up,” he tells us. “It was a wonderful time.” But suddenly he loses that urge. Walking away from a half-lit bomb, he stops a car for a lift—just as the dynamite he’d placed below relights itself and blows the bridge up. To the people in the car, including Generalissimo Francisco Franco, it’s as if he’s saved their lives. Cut to: Allan being feted by the fascist. At one point, Allan expresses regret over the death of his friend, Esteban, so Franco shouts, “Long live Esteban!” Great bit: the Fascist toasting the long life of the revolutionary, who died trying to save Spain from him.

All of this is fine: joyful even. It’s when circumstances lead Allan to America, and the Manhattan Project, where he informs Robert Oppenheimer (Philip Rosch) how he can make his atomic bomb project work, that my enthusiasm began to dim. That was too “Forrest Gump” for me—like teaching Elvis to dance or coining the phrase “shit happens.” Except on a world-altering scale.

Forrest Gump with bombs

After the war, Allan is kidnapped by the Soviets, winds up partying with Stalin, then, after mentioning Franco, he’s put in a gulag. His escape causes Stalin’s heart attack. Etc. He winds up a noncommittal spy in Paris in 1968, and in the 1980s his recording of Ronald Reagan telling the White House gardener not to tear down the Rose Garden wall is overhead by Gorbachev, who thinks he’s talking about the Berlin Wall, and so ... blah blah blah. The closer the flashbacks got to our time, the sillier they seemed to me.

“The 100-Year-Old Man ... ,” directed by Felix Herngren and written by Herngren and Hans Ingemansson, is based upon the 2009 international best-seller by Jonas Jonasson, and I have no doubt the movie will be popular, too. Some of it is very good. The rest? It’s “Forrest Gump” with bombs. I missed the greater wisdom of the 107-year-old man.

—June 5, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard

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