Even before we can digest the title, we meet Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), the film’s centenarian protagonist, and discover that his best friend in life was his cat, Molotov, who is then killed by a fox, which Allan kills with dynamite, which gets him sent to a retirement home. This brief introduction highlights two significant threads that run through his entire life: the loss of all things dear to him, and his one true passion, blowing things up (which is the source of both his success and his troubles).
Directed by Felix Herngren and based on the novel of the same name by Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared runs two parallel stories. The first is Allan’s recollections of his fantastical exploits participating in some of the major historical events of the last century. These are played out by younger versions of Allan but narrated by his elderly voice, so it’s like watching docudrama reenactments created by your slightly crazy Swedish grandfather. The other narrative strand is Allan’s most recent adventure, escape and run-in with trouble, which may be his last — not only because people are waving guns around, but because at his age you just have to look at things that way.
You can’t blame Allan for wanting to escape the nursing home; they are having a birthday party for him, and even worse than that depressing custom of putting only one candle on the old person’s birthday cake, a nurse is attempting to decorate it with 100 candles. I’m sure all nursing homes don’t look alike, but this one looks exactly like the one where my father spent the last seven years of his life, a profoundly dismal place. I think it was the first time in my life when I felt that having a lot of money would have done me some good; it would have made me and, I’m sure, him happier if we could have afforded a private residence with a nurse. When Allan accidentally gets hold of a suitcase full of money, I couldn’t help thinking maybe this would allow him to spend his remaining days in quiet comfort — but what kind of film would that be?
I’m generally not a fan of comedy, because I feel if I don’t laugh, there’s something wrong with it, and if I do laugh, there’s something wrong with me. This movie is a comedy from start to finish, with a wide range of humor from slapstick to gross-out to extremely dry and subtle, and depending on your sensibility, you might love it or be turned off by a lot of it. Overall, while I didn’t hurt myself or anything, I laughed. If you’re like me, though, you might especially appreciate the almost Dada-esque scenes with the police detective who is trying to find Allan after he goes missing, Chief Inspector Aronsson (Ralph Carlsson). With his slow, quiet manner, sweater vest, and expression of resignation, he reminds me of a beaten-down schoolteacher who has all but given up on anything but putting in his hours. The scene in which he makes an announcement on a local radio show for listeners to be on the lookout for Allan — and has a very uncomfortable interaction with the show’s hosts — is especially good.
Naturally, the suitcase of money turns out to be a curse, the engine that drives a saga of greed, violence, absurd situations and perfectly normal people acting like maniacs. Allan starts picking up companions along the way who, like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, each have some major shortcoming that, of course, turns out to be a strength. Allan and co. are pursued by a hilarious biker gang who wear sleeveless jean jackets decorated with skulls and their name, “Never Again,” and seem to have no motorcycles, just crappy late-model cars. The gang needs to deliver the money to an English badass (Alan Ford) whom we see poolside in a robe, screaming into his cellphone. Misconnections and hilarious misunderstandings ensue — due to the language barrier and general dimwittedness — and ultimately there is violence, death and destruction.
The mayhem is nothing, though, compared to the notable moments from Allan’s life, most of which border on tragic; here’s a guy who has drunk a lot of lemonade, if you know what I’m saying. However, he faces it all with little more than a shrug of his shoulders and an acknowledgement that things are as they are because that’s the way things are (courtesy of his mother’s last words). One thing that seems to be universal throughout history and across all cultures is the prevalence of bullies, and if nothing else, Allan’s story is an example of how to not let the bullies get the best of you. Allan tells us how he has had people screaming at him all his life. He says that he most likely screamed as a baby when he was born, but then we don’t hear him raise his voice for the rest of the movie, while others are constantly screaming around him.
Throughout Allan’s wanderings, as either a mercenary or a fugitive, he contributes to the destinies of Franco, Stalin, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Harry S. Truman, Herbert Einstein (Albert’s brother), Reagan, Gorbachev, the KGB and the CIA — though, naturally, he has no time for sports, and somehow falls short of inventing rock ’n’ roll. Whether Allan is just a good storyteller, or some kind of angelic agent of change, or just an idiot who likes bombs, is not the point. To me, his story points out how the most significant figures in history were still just people, sometimes in the right or wrong place at the right time, and how chance and misunderstanding play a big role. An unextraordinary man like Allan could have easily been the lynchpin in situations that changed history — and seeing how history is constantly bought, sold, repackaged and revised, who’s to say?
When you start going down that path of thought it inevitably leads to fantasies like, “Walking down that street in 1986, when I got to that intersection, turned left, and met the love of my life, why did I turn left? If I had turned right at that intersection, maybe I would have been hit by a truck and been dead since 1986.” Which leads you back to where you started: either there is order to the universe or it’s chaotic. Which leads you back to the big cosmic joke. There are two types of people: those who don’t know, and those who do, and the people who don’t know, don’t know if the people who do know don’t really know and they’re just pretending they do. Maybe the best gift for any person is the ability to pretend. Or maybe it’s to have the kind of consciousness that Allan has, where he stumbles through life, but in the end stumbles pretty well. Maybe it’s best to just focus on insignificant things like “What’s on the menu?” — because the big questions are going to take care of themselves without any help from you.