Hail, Norway.

The Worst Person in the World (2021 movie)

When's the last time a romantic comedy made you feel anything at all? On its long downward slide, the genre hasn't died so much as zombified; a tired pile of old tropes and fairy tales played out by pretty blanks who fight and flirt and invariably make it work by the third act.

Perhaps that's why The Worst Person in the World has been greeted so rapturously, landing atop multiple critics' lists following a triumphant festival run this past year that began at Cannes. (Its inclusion at Sundance, where it played last night, is essentially a victory lap.) Worst has no shortage of gorgeous-people problems — more than enough, in fact, to fill 12 cinematic "chapters" — but it vibrates with real life, a film so fresh and untethered to rom-com cliché it might actually reshape the idea of what movies like this can be.

Renate Reinsve as Julie in 'The Worst Person in the World'
Renate Reinsve in 'The Worst Person in the World'
| Credit: Sundance Institute

Or maybe that's just how they do it in Norway. Director Joachim Trier (Thelma) first cast actress Renate Reinsve in his austere 2011 arthouse hit Oslo, August 31st, and then took nearly a decade to create a showcase role for her. The result is Julie, a magnificent mess who drinks and smokes and changes her career plans — doctor, writer, photographer — as often as her hair. In other words, she's in her twenties, but when her dating roundelay lands on a rangy underground comic-book artist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), she's charmed by his older-man ease and his certainty of how they're meant to be.

Happy domesticity is something childhood never really modeled for her, though, and Aksel's eagerness to start a family feels like a Rubicon she's nowhere near crossing. Enter Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), an alluring stranger she meets at a party in a sequence so perfectly choreographed it somehow manages to mimic the actual serotonin rush of falling for someone in real-time.

There's a playfulness to Trier's filmmaking — the storybook chapters and wry voice-overs, a bravura segment in which love literally puts the entire universe on pause — that lends the movie a kind of dizzying effervescence. But a steady melancholy runs through it as well, chemtrails of old wounds and lost causes, and a pivot toward real heartbreak in the second half resonates in a way that stories like this rarely even attempt to reach for.

A lot of that credit naturally belongs to the writer-director and his near note-perfect cast (great Trier regular Lie is better here than he's ever been, particularly in two late, devastating scenes). It's Reinsve, though, who holds the whole thing in her hands — flipping the role of muse and ingenue so deftly and sweetly that she feels, for these two hours at least, like the only person in the world. Grade: A

The Worst Person in the World comes to theaters in limited release Feb. 4. Follow EW's ongoing coverage out of Sundance here.

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The Worst Person in the World (2021 movie)
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