The good old days, when a man and wife had clearly defined roles and all you needed to be happy was an Escort. That’s where The Grump lives, when men were men and the idea of duty was something someone took up rather than questioned. It was the responsibility of his generation to repopulate and rebuild the country after World War II, he says.
After taking a nasty fall at his remote home, lying there for days before anyone realised, The Grump is forced to move in with his son and daughter-in-law. He’s a thorn in his daughter-in-law’s side, who he only ever refers to as ‘the young missus’. She tells him to sit still, he goes up a ladder to clean the gutter; she says to stay put, he joins a meeting with some of her clients at work. There’s a quirky comedy feel to these scenes, like a down in the dumps Toni Erdmann, not so intent on endearing himself to people as overbearing them with supposed elderly wisdom that always borders on – or crosses into – being intolerant of a certain group of people.
Director Dome Karukoski does a remarkable job with The Grump’s character. You’re never in doubt he’s hard work, but his irritating qualities stay firmly inside the film. He’s not at all endearing, but he’s watchable, a relic from times we’re better for having left behind. He can’t help but comment on a woman breast-feeding in public, or make a song and dance out of being served chips by a black woman.
It works as well as it does because, for all of The Grump’s frustrations, they’re underpinned by a stubbornness that’s fuelled by a repressed vulnerability. As the film becomes more and more about The Grump and his son, it turn into a meditation on masculinity across generations and how far society has come. Antti Litja’s gruff and gravelly face contrasts with Iikka Forss’s well-kept complexion and appearance, permissible by a social change in attitude towards masculine presentation.
There’s empathy to be found here too. Stories about elderly people are still under-told. Despite his many flaws, The Grump is a man taken from his isolated and regimented life and placed in modern Helsinki, in many ways an overstimulating and foreign nightmare. He’s an old man who doesn’t recognise the world anymore, lashing out at his family for leading normal 21st century lives he finds completely alien. Just occasionally, you might feel sorry for him.
It’s more than a film about an elderly person spewing offensive diatribes for the sake of a few laughs. There’s a cross-generational understanding in The Grump that speaks to the world’s inability to communicate with people who aren’t similar to us, neatly told here in a family drama that’s as funny as it is touching. It’s a film that sneaks up on you, just as you think it’s going to be one thing, it becomes something more profound, with a touching final act that’s both surprising and earned. Karukoski has gone on to make bigger films, but this little Finnish gem will be one of his best.