The Norwegian comedy Elling only sounds like one of those productions so beloved by the schmaltzhounds who pick the nominees for Best Foreign Language Oscar -- a gently funny drama about adults with emotional problems who find healing in friendship. In fact, this gently funny drama (and Oscar nominee) is a quietly subversive argument for a generous welfare state. Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen), a phobic, self-described ''mama's boy'' unable to cope following his mother's death, meets Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), a hulking virgin wild with sexual hunger, when the two room together in a state mental hospital. Released from the institution but guided by a hip, non-patronizing social worker (Jorgen Langhelle), the two men are provided with a small apartment and encouraged to live in the world on their own.
There's nothing too sweet or too wacky about the small steps these bruised buddies take toward becoming productive, everyday eccentrics; although they're clearly odd, Ellefsen and Nordin never play Movie Odd. On the contrary, director Petter Naess steps smartly away from whimsy and sentimentality every time a viewer might fear the guys are going too Norwegian-Oscar-and-Felix. ''Elling'' charms because of its natural, non-magical attitude toward humanity. Here's hoping Kevin Spacey, whose production company is planning an American remake, keeps the faith.