'The Worst Person in the World' is one of the most fun movies of the year

Although the movie has its flaws – Julie’s flitting around can seem inconsequential – in the end it is an enjoyable portrait of a woman who becomes more interesting as her story progresses.

 RENATE REINSEVE as Julie in ‘The Worst Person in the World’ (photo credit: Courtesy of Oslo Pictures)
RENATE REINSEVE as Julie in ‘The Worst Person in the World’
(photo credit: Courtesy of Oslo Pictures)

The Worst Person in the World is the tongue-in-cheek title of a Norwegian movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life and who she wants to be. It isn’t exactly a romantic comedy but more of a coming-of-age story with comic and absurd moments about Julie (Renate Reinseve), an Oslo student who moves from profession to profession and man to man, which leads her to make the critical self-assessment from which the movie takes its title. 

It’s an entertaining story, mainly because Reinseve gives an engaging performance that won her the Best Actress Award at Cannes in 2021. She is beautiful, but more importantly, she radiates vitality. She’s like the girl in school you wished would be your best friend the moment you met her.

Her acting meshes perfectly with the complex character director Joachim Trier has created for her, and your feelings about her change as Julie evolves. Like the other people in her life, we are amused, annoyed, entertained and sometimes concerned about her.

Julie is in her late 20s. Coming-of-age stories usually deal with younger characters, but many people don’t really settle down and get focused until that age and so it is often really interesting people who have the most trouble making their way. 

She starts out seemingly set in life as a medical student, but she finds herself constantly distracted from learning how to cure illness by her social media feed.

Deciding she isn’t interested in healing the body, she switches to psychology, but finds herself equally distracted by her sexy professor, with whom she has an affair, which is presented as a lighthearted romp until he begins to irritate her. Norway apparently has not caught up to the #MeToo movement on this issue, at least as it pertains to academia. 

Eventually, she decides she wants to document the world through photography and begins to study, throwing herself into her studies. She takes a job in a bookstore and falls into an affair with one of the models she is photographing for the class, but shortly afterwards gets involved in another relationship, this time with Aksel (Anders Danielson Lie), a successful cartoonist, whose work strikes some as sexist and misogynist.

THE PLOT developments above are all described in a kind of whirlwind prologue, where she switches men, professional tracks and hairdos with equal insouciance. Anxiety drives her, but nothing anchors her – until she meets Aksel, who is everything she says she wants: handsome, sexy and bright, as well as engaged in an artistically satisfying career. 

But he is a little older – he’s 40 – and takes life more seriously. He is ready to settle down. Julie’s parents split up long ago and she does not think positively about marriage and children. 

She is focused almost completely on herself and cannot take what he is offering, so to force a crisis, she starts a flirtation with a younger man, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who, in many ways, is her counterpart.

He works as a barista and has a slightly older girlfriend, an established and uninhibited yoga teacher who promotes herself on Instagram and is committed to environmental causes, an enthusiasm he shares but cannot match.

In another movie, the romance between Eivind and Julia might signal the conclusion, but here it is just another step on Julie’s journey. Nice as he is, Eivind is a lightweight and Julie’s decision to be with him seems to signal her turning away from a more substantial kind of life. As soon as Aksel left the story, I kept wanting him to return.

There is a certain built-in suspense in movies like this about whom the heroine will end up with and I won’t spoil it here, except to say that the story eventually takes a darker turn, although, sadly, a very realistic one, which speeds up Julie’s growing-up process. 

WHILE THIS film has often been described as a romantic comedy – and it certainly features rom-com tropes, especially at the beginning – it does not follow the conventions of that genre in terms of concluding every plot thread with a neat resolution, and is a stronger movie because of that.

Trier is an interesting director and his movie about the Norwegian literary scene, Reprise, was especially enjoyable. He does not take the story where you may want it to go, but in the end, that makes the movie much more memorable.

Another aspect of the film that sets it apart from so many art house movies is that it also features quite a bit of social comedy that shows how many people live today. As Eivind struggles to keep up with his eco-conscious girlfriend’s demands that he purify his life, many viewers may recognize themselves. 

There is also much humor around Julie’s ditzy approach to life. She reminded me at times of a brunette Carole Lombard from the heyday of screwball comedies in the 1930s. Trier gives us permission to laugh at his heroine and even to get fed up with her self-centeredness, but he still finds a way to make us care for her.

Set in upper-middle class Oslo and a country house outside the city, it makes Norway look almost distractingly lovely. The characters wear beautiful, understated clothes and live in gorgeous apartments, which gives the film an escapist aspect for those stuck in or close to home during the pandemic.

But it’s the actors and not their costumes that make the movie what it is, and Reinseve and Lie have real chemistry, whether they are kissing or sparring. Lie is a wonderful actor, and his scenes with Julie leave the strongest impression. He makes Aksel complex, an often arrogant man who can also be vulnerable and eventually learns a new outlook on life, one which helps Julie find the direction she has been seeking.

Although the movie has its flaws – Julie’s flitting around can seem inconsequential – in the end it is an enjoyable portrait of a woman who becomes more interesting as her story progresses.