When we first meet Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard), he's just about to be released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence for a crime that we don't hear about until much later. The odd thing is, he doesn't look particularly happy. It's as if he already misses life behind bars. Could it be that, for him, re-entering society is a scary prospect?
Possibly. In conversation, Ulrik seems at once accommodating and just a bit shell-shocked. That dynamic applies whether he's talking with his smarmy old boss, Jensen (Bjorn Floberg), or his persnickety new one, Sven (Bjorn Sundquist).
Jensen wants Ulrik to commit yet another crime and, for a while, it seems as if the ex-convict might comply. But Ulrik seems far more interested in reconnecting with his son Geir (Jan Gunnar Roise), an amiable fellow who is not unsympathetic to his long-absent father but whose affection extends only so far.
"A Somewhat Gentle Man" is a character-based comedy from Norway, but of the sort that fans of offbeat American director Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Broken Flowers") might appreciate. Working from a screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson, director Hans Petter Moland pursues a leisurely pace without nudging us into dreamland.
Skarsgard, who is perhaps best known for "Good Will Hunting" and "Breaking the Waves," makes the most of his rich role, imbuing Ulrik with a knockabout charm.
"A Somewhat Gentle Man" is quite funny, but in a way that's significantly different than most Americans expect. Perhaps the gold standard for mainstream Hollywood comedy these days is "The Hangover," which was rude enough to please teenagers but not rude enough to turn off adults.
But when it comes to European art-house fare, droll is the way to go.
No tigers in hotel rooms. No cameo appearances by ex-boxers.
Three stars (out of four) • What "A Somewhat Gentle Man" • Rating Not rated • Run time 1:48 • Language In Norwegian with English subtitles