The Man Without a Past Movie Review

This slight but charmingly deadpan foreign comedy from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki stays within an old-school groove. The comedy is quaint and almost corny. A fellow critic nearly threw a fit when the hero befriended a cute dog that follows him around for the rest of the movie. "If this were an American film," my friend groaned, "you'd be complaining about how saccharine it is. Since it's foreign, you say it's touching."

The guy has a point. But The Man Without a Past is able to get away with such things -- making them sweet and, heck, even cute -- because Kaurismäki has an unerring sense of tone control. Like stone-faced Buster Keaton, his laconic actors drift through the trash-ridden outskirts of Helsinki waiting to see what chance and fate throw in their laps. They're outcast heroes leftover from one of Keaton's films, or maybe Chaplin (and, actually, some much better Jim Jarmusch films). Smoking endless cigarettes and trading witty repartee back and forth, they're an amusing cast of resilient, coarse, dead-end clowns.

Amnesiac working-class joe M (Markku Petolta, who looks a little like Bill Pullman) has been nearly beaten to death by street thugs. Taken in by the locals, he goes through the motions of rediscovering himself. Surprisingly free of soul searching, the movie instead takes an interest in M's budding friendships with his neighbors, a capitalist pig landlord you've gotta learn to love, a big hearted Salvation Army employee (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen, more spry and charming than in the relentlessly downbeat The Match Factory Girl), and, of course, the cute dog.

As a narrative, it's pretty threadbare. The Man Without a Past takes a while to find its footing, with its colorful supporting cast gradually winning us over. They aren't colorful in the tacky way of Amelie (they're positively muted), but they've got scrappy and earnest qualities that shine through. By the time a few Salvation Army side characters form a rockabilly band and start jamming away, The Man Without a Past has earned amusing points without ever seeming to strain for them. If Amelie was like getting drowned in a bowl of sugary punch, Kaurismäki's comedy feels more like a handful of cookies. It won't stem anyone's hunger for absurd comedy or international cinema, but it's good for passing the time between meals.

Placed in the middle of the New York Film Festival, it's a nice relief from overstuffed pretension and self-righteous messages. It may be The Film Without a Point, saying things we already know about human interconnection and that we can all get along if we try (even the homeless). That's not half as interesting as the curious little scenes such as a spontaneous bank robbery leading to a couple of temporary friendships (a short film in itself), or two lovers sitting by a jukebox playing a '50s-style number from The Renegades before their first kiss, or the endless paperwork our amnesiac hero has to go through in order to (a) find out who he is, or (b) become someone new. It's disappointing that we don't care so much whether or not he figures those things out, but it's a charming route along the way.

Reviewed at the 2002 New York Film Festival. Aka Mies vailla menneisyyttä.

Dog without a fork.

Cast & Crew

Director : Aki Kaurismäki

Producer : Aki Kaurismäki


Comments

The Man Without a Past Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2002

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