One of the most reliable crowd-pleasers, in multiplexes and arthouses alike, is the tale of the long-suffering conformist who finally cuts loose and embarks upon a series of whimsical adventures. O’Horten, the latest film from Norway’s Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories, Factotum), adheres to that well-worn template with the exacting punctiliousness of a railway timetable—just like the film’s lovably forlorn protagonist, who’s retiring at 67 after four decades of driving a train between Oslo and Bergen. Not that O’Horten (veteran actor Owe) is necessarily looking to shake up his staid life, by any means. Goofy, random shit just keeps happening to him, as a hint that perhaps he ought to consider using his few remaining years more wisely. Suddenly, this dour man of regular habits is spending the night trapped in a strange apartment, walking around town in a ludicrous pair of high-heeled red boots and heading out for a joyride with a drunken doctor who claims he can drive blindfolded for miles without ever having an accident.
This movie could use a few accidents, frankly (though what happens with the blindfolded driver is unpredictably amusing). Like Hamer’s previous films, O’Horten takes picaresque drollery to absurd extremes, but in a rigid, programmatic way; never do you feel—as you do in, say, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, perhaps the greatest film in this offbeat genre—that there’s any sort of genuine threat to the established order. Granted, Hamer’s style is more lightly comic, but that’s the problem—it’s so light that it’s constantly in danger of fluttering away in a mild breeze. If O’Horten generates a bit more gravity than usual, it’s thanks largely to Owe’s performance in the title role, which is a marvel of crumbling control. At once dignified and befuddled, he’s deft enough to make you wish that his character had something more gripping to contend with than a screenwriter with a neat grid and a waggish sense of humor.