One of the minor mysteries of the 2002 film year will certainly be how the mediocre Norwegian feature “Elling” was able to snag an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film. While the selections for this category in the Oscar-race have seen more than their fair share of curiosities, it is hard to recall a recent film less deserving of a nomination.
“Elling” focuses on a pair of emotionally-stunted men in their early forties who have been roommates in a state-run institution. Elling is a small, fussy, neurotic whiner given to hissy fits and a singular devotion to Norway’s Labor Party political machine. Kjell Bjarne is a hulking, sex-obsessed virgin who responds to frustration by banging his head into walls and tables. For no clear reason, both men are simultaneously discharged and relocated to a rather spacious apartment in downtown Oslo. The state provides them with cash and covers their expenses, but they are forced by a tough-love social worker to adapt to the basics of a quotidian existence: being able to use a telephone, buy groceries, go to the movies, hang out in a cafe, etc. After the inevitable fumbles and stumbles, both men quickly adapt to “normal” living. Kjell Bjarne then finds the answer to his long-delayed lust in the presence of his upstairs neighbor, an unmarried pregnant laundromat worker, while Elling has a chance meeting with a celebrated poet who uncorks his hitherto undiscovered talent for writing verse.
The main problem with “Elling” is director Peter Næss’ insistence not to identify the medical roots of Elling and Kjell Bjarne’s problems. Not having any idea just what is wrong with these men (are they mentally retarded, schizophrenic, brain damaged, or what?), it is difficult to find any sympathy or compassion for their behavior as they pinball between the pathetic and ridiculous. Being denied any clue to the root of the problem, “Elling” becomes little more than a warped Norwegian version of “The Odd Couple” as the mismatched duo get into one mess after another.
The two leads in “Elling” actually originated their roles in an Oslo stage version of this material, but Per Christian Ellefsen’s portrayal of Elling is so broad that it would seem someone forgot to tell him he is supposed to play to the camera and not the upper balcony. With shrill vocal ripples, mannered nervous tics and clownish grimacing and eye-rolls, Ellefsen is so over-the-top that his acting makes Nathan Lane look like Max Von Sydow. As Kjell Bjarne, the massive Sven Nordin bears a close resemblance to Gerard Depardieu but lacks the French star’s charismatic vulnerability and often seems stranded in the film without a clue for his being there. His portrayal of a sex-starved man lacks humor or pathos, and this plot line leads to cheap smutty jokes that even Benny Hill would have passed over as being juvenile.
If anything saves “Elling,” it is the trio of supporting performances that are closer to the real world: Jorgen Langhelle as a surprising seedy-looking social worker, Marit Pia Jacobsen as the pregnant neighbor who falls in love with Kjell Bjarne, and Per Christiansen as the elderly poet who allows this oddball bunch into his life. These performances are richly defined and beautifully presented, offering genuine human emotions complete with virtues and flaws, and it is a shame that “Elling” could not jettison its two main characters and focus on this trio instead.
As “Elling” finds its way into American theatrical release, its sole claim for recognition is its recent Academy Award nomination. Audiences who equate Oscar nominations with high-quality filmmaking will come away from “Elling” with a sense of confusion at the Academy’s thought process and even less respect for the minds behind this tedious production.