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The Worst Person in the World Review: A Euphoric Rom-Com Restoration Project

The film may be the prime example of how to restore fun, significance, and even a little bit of sex to a well-worn genre.

3.5
The Worst Person in the World
Photo: M2 Films

One wouldn’t think that the world needs another quirky romantic dramedy about young adults finding their way in life, or that today’s jaded moviegoer would succumb to a narrative that frankly affirms the joys and pains of growing into yourself. But Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a cinematic disarmament campaign, a charismatic negotiator arrived to make a deal with our rom-com-unfriendly times and dismantle our time-honed defenses against sentiment. In what could be called a bait and switch if it didn’t seem so fluid and effortless, the film’s levity of spirit at first belies, then ends up accentuating, deeper themes about navigating a world in flux and a life you only get to live once.

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a somewhat adrift Norwegian woman in her 20s who rather abruptly cycles through career paths and boyfriends. Unsure which interest to follow, she switches from a biology to a psychology grad program and finally to the less structured goal of becoming a photographer, each change coming in the wake of an instantaneous epiphany that she isn’t where she wants to be. Trier guides us through this part of her life with a light, rapid-fire montage and third-person voiceover narration, giving us bare glimpses of the men and lives that the indecisive but confident Julie leaves behind as she changes gears.

As the opening titles announce, the film’s flight through Julie’s mid-20s consists of 12 chapters, framed by a prologue and epilogue. As the prologue closes, Julie has ended up with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie)—a somewhat older but still youthful illustrator of underground comics, the open sexism of which she isn’t entirely comfortable with—and landed in a menial job at a bookshop. Their chemistry is undeniable, so much so that they radiate mutual affection even when they disagree on the issue of their immediate future involving children. But whether on a true whim or guided by an inner dissatisfaction, Julie strays from the stability of her life with Aksel and begins an intense flirtation with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom she encounters when she wanders into a wedding reception and decides to crash it.

Julie’s freeness of spirit, the breezy cleverness that draws Eivind to her when he overhears her punking a bougie woman at the wedding into believing that hugging her children will traumatize them, threatens to reduce the character to a manic pixie dream girl. But even though The Worst Person in the World is largely about Julie’s romances, Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt don’t make her an appendage of the men in the film. If her life in some sense revolves around relationships, it’s because for many in their 20s, romance and its failure or success is a significant part of finding themselves. Crucially, the filmmakers capture that for Julie this carries stakes that are particular to being a woman: The unspoken problem with her relationship to Aksel is that it threatens to become her purpose in life—like monogamous heterosexuality was for her matrilineal forebears, as a montage-like aside consisting of weathered photos of generations of her miserable-looking grandmothers suggests.

If doesn’t hurt that Reinsve conveys a sense of full, nuanced subjectivity in a story whose sardonic narrational style might seem indulgent and shallow without her performance’s intimation of depth. The perpetually lost twentysomething may be a stereotype well explored by many a Noah Baumbach film, most notably Frances Ha, but Reinsve breathes life into familiar scenarios, through a character whose uncertainty is a product of uncertain times. Even the near-obligatory scene where Julie momentarily forgets her cares and sprints through the street has a buoyancy that makes one forgive its familiarity. Reinsve roots Julie’s lack of concrete direction in a thoughtful openness, a youthful attitude of both excitement and skepticism at the plenitude of experiences life offers that is utterly bewitching.

The numerous asides taken by the ironically distanced voiceover narration, as well as such flights of fancy as a partially animated mushroom-trip sequence, bring us into Julie’s fraught state of mind with a comic verve that reflects and then begins to break down our defense mechanisms against naked emotion. When Julie gives Aksel the big breakup talk, the third-person narrator intercedes, talking over and summarizing the exchanged lines that would be familiar to anyone who’s been in a similar scenario, as if embarrassed by how “basic” it all is. But when, some time later, Julie has to confront mortality in the guise of an old friend who’s become gravely ill, the narration relents and the characters have several frank discussions about their regrets and the unshakeable fear of nonexistence. The most surprising turn in the winding The Worst Person in the World may be how effortlessly it slides from self-consciousness to deeply affecting contemplation of loss and very real pain.

The Worst Person in the World strikes many familiar chords about life, love, and loss, but proves that much insight and pleasure can still be gained by simply rearranging them a bit. Certainly there’s an honesty in its exploration of a woman who deeply loves two men, and a dedication in its identification with Julie’s complex position as a 21st century woman, that are relatively unique. But if some films look to revivify a formula rather than reinvent the wheel, The Worst Person in the World may be the prime example of how to restore fun, significance, and even a little bit of sex to the well-worn terrain of the romantic comedy.

Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum, Hans Olav Brenner, Helene Bjørneby, Vidar Sandem, Maria Grazia di Meo Director: Joachim Trier Screenwriter: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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