As heroes go, the two just-released mental patients struggling to make a new life in Petter Næss' touching social comedy Elling are notably short on glamor. When we meet him, the shy, middle-aged title character, portrayed by an exquisitely subtle actor named Per Christian Ellefsen, is a quivering bundle of phobias who, two years earlier, was taken to a state home after the death of his psychotically protective mother. By contrast, Elling's roommate at the home is a bellowing giant called Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), plagued by terrible insecurities and raging sex fantasies and blissfully unaware of the need to change his underwear. The obsessed neatnik Felix Unger and his hopelessly messy counterpart Oscar Madison may have been lurking in the back of novelist Ingvar Ambjørnsen's mind when he conjured up Elling and Kjell. But this Norwegian version of The Odd Couple manages to trump Neil Simon: Both men are certifiably crazy, in a likable and movie-friendly sort of way, and for that we readily take to them into our hearts.
At first look, some may wonder why the authorities decided to give these two their own state-funded apartment in scary, overwhelming Oslo. Sheltered since birth and found by the police cowering in a closet, the diminutive Elling is still so frightened of strangers and intimidated by ringing telephones that we expect him to sit alone in the dark for the rest of his days. Meanwhile, the hulking Kjell Bjarne suffers fits of frustration so awful that he slams his enormous blond head against walls while braying like a wounded bear. But both the Norwegian welfare state (the object of some impish joking here, as well as obvious affection) and the moviemakers apparently know what they are doing. Psychiatric experts might quibble with the film's sunny outlook, but thanks to their growing friendship and the human animal's gift for adaptation, Elling and Kjell soon make headway against their afflictions -- whatever they are.
The prissy, quiet Elling's deep-seated fears, we see in time, conceal a vibrant intellect and a biting sense of humor. When Elling's true self starts to emerge -- he manages to eat lunch in a restaurant, he argues for classical music at home -- we are delighted by each new lilt in actor Ellefsen's step, each tentative joke he cracks. "I made a friend without help from the Norwegian government," he declares, fully aware of his predicament.
When Kjell Bjarne also begins to blossom -- he's an able auto mechanic, it turns out, and he takes exaggerated pleasure in new experiences -- we feel doubly blessed. Deep within the oaf, a true heart beats. Even the roommates' gloomy social worker (Jørgen Langhelle) is encouraged by their moves toward independence.
Like dumb Joe Buck and doomed Ratso Rizzo, though, these outsiders also suffer setbacks, some of them hilarious. Ever the carnal enthusiast, Kjell Bjarne blows 4,000 kroner on phone sex. Still unstable, Elling feels threatened by Kjell's tentative new friendship with an abandoned mother-to-be who lives upstairs (Maria Pia Jacobsen). But neither novelist Ambjornsen -- who has always written sympathetically about mental patients, drug addicts and prostitutes -- nor screenwriter Axel Hellstenius (also the author of a successful stage version of the book) nor director Næss is inclined toward bleakness. Suffice to say that in the denouement of this beautifully observed, miraculously unsentimental comedy/drama, Elling discovers his muse (in the person of an elderly poet named Alf) and Kjell restarts his emotional engine (thanks to a decrepit old Buick). The survivors get drunk. They go on a life-affirming road trip. Their fragile self-esteem grows stronger. They discover life's sweetness, and they move on. No Bergmanesque gloom or Ibsenesque moral dilemmas for this appealing odd couple -- just the certainty that with some effort and a little encouragement from others, they can thrive and prosper.
While feeling good about the likable heroes' hard-won victories, however, we Americans might also consider the priorities of a society that gives people such as Elling and Kjell Bjarne a fighting chance. Instead of turning thousands of schizophrenics and manic-depressives out into the streets every year to fend for themselves, as our own woeful health-care system does, the Scandinavian nations see to their mentally disabled citizens' needs. Elling may look like a fairytale on this side of the Atlantic, but in its homeland it probably plays a lot more like reality.