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MOVIE REVIEW

'Kitchen' serves up wry humor

If you've ever staggered out of IKEA oppressed by the clean, inhuman lines of a thousand affordable dinette sets, you may get a kick out of Bent Hamer's comedy "Kitchen Stories," a droll film-festival favorite that opens today at the Brattle. The film pits the scientific idealism of a team of Swedish home efficiency experts against the unwashed entropy of their subjects, single men in late 1940s Norway. It's not much of a contest: Entropy carries the day.

Before it settles down into a two-man character study, "Kitchen" offers a succession of quietly uproarious sight gags, most of which poke fun at the scientists' zeal for orderliness. In an early scene, the streamlined caravans of the investigators for Sweden's Home Research Institute cross the lonely border into Norway, only to be thrown into chaos by the switch to right-hand driving. The disorientation is only beginning.

"We have managed to rationalize the kitchen," crows team leader Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson), brandishing studies of Swedish housewives that reduce their movements in the kitchen to spirograph art. The Greeks called this hubris, I believe. In any event, his men fan out across the snowbound town of Landstad, each assigned to study an aging, unmarried male inhabitant. The scientists' observation posts are giant versions of a baby's high chair, watchtowers from which they can scan the entire kitchen. Under no circumstances are they to talk to their hosts. Apparently no one here has heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

"Kitchen Stories" nevertheless takes for granted that it's impossible to observe someone without becoming involved, and that research will always be monkey-wrenched by emotion. Malmberg gripes about one of his team who has started drinking through the nights with his subject, but he has no idea that the man he's griping to, Folke (Tomas Nordstrom), has already contaminated his own study with friendship.

Folke, a timid egghead, has been assigned to observe Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a cranky, reclusive farmer who has had second thoughts about the project. Early scenes between the two are beauties of silent gamesmanship that recall the classic comedy of Jacques Tati: Folke, in his chair, watches Isak setting mousetraps and can't stifle the delicate cough that brings a trap down on the old man's fingers. Isak's response is to drill a hole in his bedroom floor and observe the observer.

The ice thaws eventually, and "Kitchen Stories" drifts into an easy, unforced sentimentality that stresses the frailty of human connections. The true nature of the experiment is loneliness and our responses to same, whether that's Isak's friend Grant (Bjorn Floberg) hauling Folke's camper onto the train tracks in a fit of jealousy or Isak playing the saw late at night, filling the still air with unearthly metal moans.

The film's own observations are small -- Hamer is essentially tracking the movements of two men around each other -- but no less satisfying, even with an ending that feels unduly pat. "Kitchen Stories" is a shier cousin to all those Miramax movies about wacky small-town inhabitants teaching city folk to loosen up and enjoy life. Like its characters, the film speaks loudest when it says the least.

("Kitchen Stories": **1/2)

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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