Sunday, April 9, 2017
They look funny together, the small Thai woman and the enormous man from Denmark. They like each other, but he's unsure of himself, unsure of his desires.
Do you mind if I stay? he says.
When she says no, he gently puts his gigantic arm around her, and the relief he feels is palpable. In Thailand, where most of the women he meets are prostitutes who laugh at his size, he has felt ridiculous. Teddy Bear, a Danish film from 2012, is about a grown man who simply wants a hug, a bit of conversation, and perhaps most of all, to get away from his overbearing mother. It plays a bit like a Danish version of Marty, even to where this kind woman rejects his first attempt to kiss her, just as Betsy Blair turned away from Ernest Borgnine. But in Thailand, we learn, kissing in public is bad manners. That's why Teddy Bear feels unique, even if its a story we've seen before.
Kim Kold plays Dennis, the giant. A champion bodybuilder from Denmark, Kold facially resembles Charles Napier, the character known for his work in Russ Meyer films. Kold also looks a bit, from certain angles, like John Goodman. Physically, though, he's from the Marvel Universe. Even his hands look oversized, as if he's injected rocket fuel into the joints. His size is a distraction at first - he looks like one of those chemically enhanced farm animals that show up on YouTube to frighten us about what we're eating - but he's a good actor, and we believe that he's searching for love.
He lives in a small, bland town in Denmark: There seems to be nothing there, and it's no wonder that he has dedicated his life to lifting weights. His life is empty. By day he works out at a gym, and flexes in the mirror with his buddies. He occasionally asks out one of the scrawny female gym members. We see him on a date and it's dreadful. The woman, who is neither attractive nor interesting, busts his chops for staring at her boobs. He's so bored, and so void of personality, that he doesn't even get mad or embarrassed. His nights are spent at home with his mother, a thin little woman. He sits in his room, surrounded by his trophies. She sits in her room, reading. She has no idea of his loneliness, and we get the impression that he keeps his yearning a secret. The father, we learn, left for undisclosed reasons. Dennis stays around as the man of the house, but it's a lonely gig.
The movie goes into a new gear when Dennis learns his gawky cousin has found a bride in Thailand. Feeling his chances of finding a woman might improve if he follows his cousin's example, we soon see Dennis leaving the sterile grey atmosphere of Denmark for colorful Thailand, where the streets are supposedly paved with willing brides. He meets the man who set up his cousin, but the guy seems like little more than a polite pimp, introducing Dennis to a couple of young women who are obviously prostitutes. Dennis isn't interested. In fact, he's like a giant eunuch, as if spending so much time in the gym has worn him out for anything else, even a quickie with a Thai whore. We begin to suspect Dennis has never been with a woman. His mother wouldn't have allowed it. But he's smart enough to know that the Thai situation isn't for him. He sits at a bar with a half-dozen other men, fat, ugly, balding guys, who are also trying to be matched with Thai girls. It's not until Dennis decides to visit a Thai gym to lift some weights - the only thing he really knows - that his luck changes. He meets a friendly widow whose late husband once owned the place. They go on a picnic, she takes him sightseeing; to Dennis' surprise, he feels comfortable with her. But how will he explain all of this to his mother?
What makes the movie work so well is Kold, who didn't have a lot of acting experience. Since Teddy Bear, he's worked fairly often, even appearing in a couple of American features (Fast and Furious 6, and Star Trek Beyond). He's believable as a sheltered man who, nearing 40, can't bear another minute of his life as it is, even if it means upsetting his demanding mother. When his new Thai girlfriend flies to Denmark to be with him, Dennis greets her at the airport with flowers, unable to contain his smile, delighted with the idea of buying her gifts, and spending time with her. It may be the only time he smiles in the entire movie.
Director Mads Matthiesen wants to build the movie into a showdown between mother and son, but American audiences might disappointed in the climactic blowout. It swells to a point, but these Danes are so emotionally constipated that the blowout never quite arrives. The mother reacts like a spurned lover, which suggests Dennis may have issues that will require a lot more than merely getting his own apartment. Still, Teddy Bear won awards on the international festival circuit from Transylvania to Bombay, which shows that Matthiesen's story struck a cord with people. He also had help from a fine cast of actors.
Of course, there's Lamaiporn Sangamee Hougard as Toi, the woman who befriends Dennis. Her scowl when Dennis first tries to kiss her is priceless, as if she's angry at a culture that makes prostitution a conventional career choice but frowns on outdoor kissing. And Elsebeth Steentoft as the mother - stiff and angry, resentful of her son's search for love, is a crock pot of stifled emotion. An American movie would have Dennis played by a nerdy little fellow, but it was a nice idea to cast a muscular giant, as if even a superman can be bowed by a selfish mother. The title is interesting, too. Is Dennis the teddy bear? Or is he searching for a teddy bear?