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(2002) *** R
89 min. First Look. Director: Petter Naess. Cast: Per Christian Ellefsen, Sven Nordin, Per Christensen, Jorgen Langhelle, Marit Pia Jacobsen.

With a touch of the same goofy spirit that fueled Amélie, Elling tells a simple tale of simple folk who, though mentally challenged, resemble most anyone in their struggle to overcome daily fears.

Based on Ingvar Ambjørnsen's novel Brødre i blodet, Elling was developed on the Norse stage by director Petter Næss and stars Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin. In the title role, Ellefsen sometimes sports an off-white ensemble that loudly evokes that of Dustin Hoffman in American predecessor Rain Man. In fact, the film more closely resembles The Odd Couple, with Elling's more overtly crazy opposites chafing inside the four walls of their welfare-provided apartment. Stress sets off the anal-retentive Elling on high-pitched, rat-a-tat-tat tirades, while hulking, head-banging Kjell Bjarne (Nordin) does his slovenly best to stink up the apartment. Their extreme neuroses become fodder for running gags; Elling's high-strung gait betrays his dizzying, near-agoraphobic social anxiety, and the virginal Kjell Bjarne's tendency not to shower threatens his dream of scoring with a woman.

Elling is unavoidably simplistic, but humorously offbeat in that easygoing European way. Elling takes baby steps to venturing out into the world, eventually befriending a once-famous poet (Per Christensen); Elling's ensuing self-discovery leads to a literally creative use of sauerkraut packages. Kjell Bjarne responds to a drunken accident in their stairwell and finds a a chance for love with a single mother-to-be (Marit Pia Jacobsen). It's difficult to convey how the treacly and sometimes predictable story works, but it does. It's the little things--like atmospheric lighting or artfully mannered fussing by the actors--that prod the managable 89 minutes along.

Perhaps this plays better precisely because it's a foreign film, but it was a smash hit in its native Norway (purportedly the most popular film there in 25 years). I'll venture, however, that when Kevin Spacey's production company makes the American version (they now own the rights), the story will begin to smell like Elling's shower-deprived roomie.

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