As heroes go, the two just-released mental patients struggling to make a new life in Peter Næss's touching social comedy Elling are notably short on glamour. 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 following the death of his psychotically protective mother. By contrast, Elling's roommate at the home, Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), is a bellowing giant, 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 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, cowering in a closet, by the police -- the diminutive Elling is still so frightened by 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, braying like a wounded bear. But both the Norwegian welfare state 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. When Kjell Bjarne also begins to blossom -- he's an able auto mechanic, it turns out -- we feel doubly blessed.
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 (Marit Pia Jacobsen). But things never get bleak. Suffice it 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.