'The Grump': Toronto Review

Care to spare some time for a grumpy old man’s constant complaining?  

A disgruntled senior citizen wreaks emotional havoc with his wary relatives in this Finnish family comedy

For better or worse, the cultural specificity of social satire can often directly influence a film’s potential for crossover beyond its native territory. Dome Karukoski, a multiple-award-winning director in Finland, garnered international attention with his relatable 2013 neo-Nazi family drama Heart of a Lion, although his current outing is only likely to achieve similar recognition if it’s selected from among the current shortlist of contenders as the Finnish Academy Award submission. Otherwise, it looks to be a largely regional item that attempts to play up generational and social conflicts that are perhaps most easily relatable in neighboring nations.

For the 80ish “Grump” (Antti Litja), the good times are long gone: In fact, everything’s been going downhill since about 1953, an opinion he’s fond of sharing with anyone within earshot. Understandably estranged from his two adult sons, one of whom has fled to Belgium to escape his father’s dour disposition, and struggling to adjust to his ailing wife’s (Petra Frey) advancing dementia, he spends most of his time tilling potato fields on his isolated farm outside Helsinki. A twisted ankle forces him to relocate to the city, however, where he reluctantly settles in with daughter-in-law Liisa (Mari Perankoski) prior to checking in to a hospital for rehabilitation, while his 40-something son, Hessu (Iikka Forss), attempts to take over his father’s duties on the farm.

Liisa is so wary of Hessu’s dad that she’s sent her three young daughters to stay with friends as she tries to focus on preparing for a major sales meeting with some Russian clients. The last thing she needs around the house is the aggravation of a grumpy old man nattering on about how much better life was in the old days. When she’s forced to take him along for her meeting with the Russians, she’s shocked by his unwelcome domination of the discussion, but her clients are somehow charmed by his compulsive forthrightness. 

It’s not long, however, before he’s scuttled her carefully constructed deal and she completely loses it with him, recalling Hessu from the farm to deal with his dad and moving out of the house in retaliation for her husband’s negligence. Ineffectual almost to the point of spinelessness, he’s never been one to confront either his wife’s or his father’s overbearing personalities. In order to lure her back home, however, he may reluctantly need to take a few pages from his dad’s manly man book of mid 20th century relationship dynamics.

Finnish TV and feature vet Litja succeeds perhaps too well at investing the Grump with every conceivable off-putting stereotype of the pre-war generation, with excessive thrift perhaps his least attractive characteristic, alongside a compulsive tendency toward withering criticism of everyone and everything that fails to meet his somehow superior standards.

Perankoski scores major points just by going a few rounds with the old grouch (tentatively ending in a draw), while still maintaining a tattered shred of compassion for him regardless. The script, co-adapted by Karukoski and novelist Tuomas Kyro, doesn’t give Forss much opportunity to prove his mettle, but a few well-attuned scenes tellingly reveal the rebelliousness simmering below Hessu’s placid exterior. Flashbacks reveal the terminally dissatisfied oldster’s less than exemplary marriage from an unduly nostalgic perspective, along with news clips featuring the politicians, celebrities and sports heroes who managed to enliven his younger years.

The Grump, whose actual name is never mentioned, may represent a familiar type to Finnish audiences, irascible and lovable by turns as he may be, but rendering such an abrasive character accessible to a broader public represents a significant complication that neither the filmmakers nor the cast appear capable of resolving.

Production company: Solar Films
Cast: Antti Litja, Petra Frey, Mari Perankoski, Iikka Forss
Director: Dome Karukoski
Screenwriters: Dome Karukoski, Tuomas Kyro

Producers: Jukka Helle, Markus Selin
Director of photography: Pini Hellstedt
Production designer: Betsy Angerman
Costume designer: Anna Vilppunen
Editor: Harri Ylonen
Music: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson
Sales: The Yellow Affair

No rating, 104 minutes

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