The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was first described to me as “a European Forrest Gump with lots of explosions,” and I was sold! After watching it, I’m pleased to report that this description is dead on. Adapted by director Felix Herngren from Jonas Jonasson’s bestselling book of the same name, The 100 Year Old Man is a loose-limbed, historically sprawling shaggy dog of a movie. Enjoyment is predicated on your acceptance of the ridiculous and, most importantly, of you being able to appreciate the sight of a terrified skinhead being squashed to death by an elephant’s butt.
We open with the titular 100-year-old Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) mourning the death of his beloved cat at the hands of a fox. Clutching a stick of dynamite in his withered hand, he shuffles through the snow and plants it in the ground. Boom. No more fox. But even with his pet avenged, he cuts a pretty sad figure in the antiseptic, desaturated nursing home, so when he pops his legs out of the window and makes a (rather doddery) break for it, we cheer him on. Before we know it he’s inadvertently stolen a suitcase full of drug money, been declared war on by a gang of Neo-Nazis, casually murdered a couple of people and blown up a whole bunch of stuff.
Teaming up with some eccentric strangers (and that elephant), Karlsson dodges (with a combination of luck and skill) murderous gangsters and an increasingly confused detective. Interwoven with this crime caper are flashbacks to Karlsson’s surreal, far-fetched life story. Like Forrest Gump (though shorn of syrupy sentimentality), Allan Karlsson has spent his life travelling through iconic moments in 20th century history, fuelled by a lifelong passion for explosives and vodka. His unlikely trajectory takes in everywhere from the Spanish Civil War and The Manhattan Project, to Russian Gulags and Cold War spycraft. With Karlsson as our guide we hang out with a gallery of presidents, dictators, geniuses and, most entertainingly, Albert Einstein’s idiot twin brother, Herbert.
This divide between Gumpesque tall tales and a crime caper just about works, with the basic idea being to understand Karlsson’s present day behaviour in the context of his historical journey. This makes it a film of two parts – and the seam between the two is often visible. Fortunately, both stories are compelling in their own right – though there’s little effort to really meld them together – giving the film a slightly lopsided, scrappy feel. This isn’t quite enough to kill the momentum, however, and given the unlikely developments throughout, the shaky construction feels all too appropriate.
Charting one hundred years in a man’s life is a big challenge, especially as (aside from very early childhood) the character is played by a single actor. Thankfully, actor and comedian Robert Gustaffson (apparently “the funniest man in Sweden”) more than rises to the occasion, identifying a throughline of gormlessness in the character. He’s mastered a deadpan, confused stare, wrinkling his forehead in unruffled confusion at the increasingly odd situations he finds himself in. This gives him a likeable sort of charisma, all too crucial considering he’s the centre of every single scene in the film. Gustaffson is aided by some impressive make-up work. I was never quite convinced that Karlsson really was 100 years old, but as the decades roll past there’s never any danger of his tics and personality being drowned under a sea of wigs and latex.
Stylistically, the film has much in common with the recent works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There’s a refreshingly European historical sensibility baked into the movie that’s strongly reminiscent of Jeunet’s recent T.S. Spivet – both films exploring the iconography of the 20th century through a resolutely non-American lens. In practice, this means it’s a largely apolitical outlook on history. For example, Karlsson joins the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War purely as an excuse to blow stuff up. Blessed by dumb luck, he survives as his friends die off one by one and eventually inadvertently saves the life of General Franco. We cut to him partying with Franco, the punchline of the scene being the dictator unknowingly giving a toast to the most passionate Communist fighter in the film.
The humor’s pretty dark, and death is never far away from our protagonist. Anyone opposing our elderly hero generally meets with a swift, violent end pretty quickly – the most memorable being death due to being crushed by an elephant’s anus. Giggling along to these punchline deaths lends proceedings a pleasantly Coenesque sensibility, somewhat reminiscent of Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski: nobody really knows what’s going on and as they run in circles like headless chickens, the stakes and the violence rapidly escalate.
The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is by no means a perfect film. It is well constructed though, and infused with a surreal, playful sensibility that keeps you engaged if only to find out what bizarre thing is going to happen next. Audiences that know their history will smile at the outrageously surreal cameos, those into random acts of violence will swoon over the amount of exploded people, and those who adore farce will cheer as our unlikely mob of heroes try to escape with an elephant in tow.
Like its title, The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is shaggy and ramshackle, but there's enough playful imagination on display to easily make this a worthwhile recommendation.