At the very beginning of Felix Herngren’s whimsical, genially mordant comedy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) seems an expectedly doddering incompetent. The window through which he exits is in his room in a Swedish retirement home and he leaves only minutes before the start of a birthday party in his honor, with a marzipan cake and candles. Allan wanders over to a nearby bus station and gets on the first “conveyance” that leaves. It’s going to Byringe, a desolate hamlet which the station clerk tells him contains absolutely nothing of interest. This doesn’t faze Allan, still in his bathrobe, who only has enough money for that fare, anyway.
But Allan is a codger of another color, as it happens. He certainly can seem a little strange, but he’s had a strange and perilous life. In fact, it’s likely that he took French leave of the home and the party because they seemed dismally boring to him. Allan has long been an unlikely, largely unintentional adventurer, a deadpan picarro. (I don’t think he smiles even once in this movie.) He evidently wound up in the home for blowing up a fox that killed his cat. “I guess I blasted my way into a retirement home,” he tells us in a voiceover.
Allan likes to blow things up; he’s good at it. One may begin to suspect there’s some kind of psychological displacement, with an erotic impetus, going on but this movie is scarcely interested in this. It prefers to follow Allan and his accumulation of several oddball friends and accomplices, along with a like number of very desperate characters who definitely do not mean well.
Allan’s pyrotechnical skill has led him far and wide—to a psycho ward, the Manhattan Project, The Soviet Gulag, the Reagan White House, and onward to that room he’s about to leave when we meet him. This doesn’t begin to address the deadly, absurdistly comical intrigue he becomes involved in when he gets on that bus. 100-Year-Old Man’s narrative is interrupted by recurrent flashbacks to Allan’s outré life. There is, for example, the solution he provides Robert Oppenheimer at Las Alamos for the bedeviling problem of how to detonate the A-bomb. (Allan is getting impatient. “I must say I’m disappointed,” he tells the physicist, “No explosion, nothing.”) Naturally, this leads to getting smashed on vodka and dancing with Joseph Stalin. (Did you know Stalin played the trumpet?) He tells the Soviet dictator that he dances better than the girlish Spanish fascist General Franco, another acquaintance. This reference proves to be injudicious. We really don’t have time now for Harry Truman, Einstein—Herbert, Albert’s idiot brother—and the early Cold War CIA in Paris.
Meantime, in the here and now, Allan and his new acquaintances find themselves in possession of a suitcase that’s very much sought after by a few rather nasty types. They’ve also got themselves an elephant and a couple of corpses.
This picture is part road movie, part comic crime caper, and an episodic Zelig-like history of Allan’s life. Herngren and company have managed all this with impressive facility. The direction, writing and editing are deceptively smooth.
Gustafsson’s Allan is an underplayed little tour de force. Allan is a virtually unprovokable fatalist, with touches of Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields. Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna famously said, “If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. It’s always something.” Allan observes, “One thing leads to another.”
If this movie were just a tad more serious, his survival might symbolize an Everyman’s endurance. But this isn’t serious. It is a little bent by design. And it is a very deftly engineered, muted screwball comedy.