CAST: Per Christian Ellefsen, Sven Ordin, Per Christansen, Jorgen Langhelle, Mart Pia Jacobsen

DIRECTOR: Petter Naess

He's fragile, fussy and literally afraid to cross the street, a challenge he is seldom called upon to meet. That's because his take-charge mother crosses the street for him--as she goes about the daily routine of shopping and running errands--while he pages through pretty books, waiting for her to return to their snug apartment in Oslo. But nobody--not even Elling's mom-lives forever, a fact that never entered the mind of the daydreaming agoraphobe. So for a while, the middle-aged loner, disoriented but obedient, drifts child-like through the sterile corridors of the state home in which the Norwegian guardians of welfare have placed him.

Things pick up, however, when he starts paying attention to his roommate Bjarne, who is hulky and horny (though, at age 40, still a virgin). During their two-year stay in socialistic purgatory, the misfits become close, if combative, friends. Elling, oddly touched by Bjarne's longing for a life in which love and sex play a part, spins imaginary tales of his own amatory success with women. When a caseworker points out to Bjarne that the stories are laughably untrue, he doesn't care. He wants to hear them, so Elling continues to tell them.

There is trouble in welfare paradise, however. The time comes when Elling and Bjarne, deemed sufficiently sane to cope with the frightening ways of the outside world, are deposited in a state-funded apartment. And that is when the lunacy truly begins. It seems clear that the bureaucrats have bungled badly and that these grown-up babies need to be returned immediately to the nursery. But, finally, Elling ventures outside the womb of their bachelor pad and meets a poet who expands his horizon. And Bjarne not only works up the nerve to ask a drunken, conspicuously pregnant neighbor for a date, but eventually discovers the joys of the big O and of fatherhood, as well.

Petter Naess's Scandinavian screwball comedy may not have deserved the Oscar nomination it received as Best Foreign Language Film of 2001. Its humor is sometimes gratingly broad, and a few of the scenes-most notably, one set in a bar where weirdos recite the bad poetry they've written-simply don't work. But a great deal of it is fresh, funny, and quirkily engaging. As Elling, Per Christian Ellefsen is almost too strange for comfort at first, but he grows on you, and gains complete sympathy by the end. On the other hand, Sven Nordin, as the massive, vulgar, innocent Bjarne, is a total delight from the very first moment he tumbles upon the screen.