A Man Called Otto
Tom Hanks gets cantankerous in this by-the-numbers Americanisation of Swedish hit 'A Man Called Ove'.
December 29, 2022
In reality, cantankerous curmudgeons don't routinely possess hearts of gold. Genuine intentions don't always gleam behind petty folks with grudges spouting insults, either. Movies like A Man Called Otto keep claiming otherwise, though, because cinema is an empathy machine — and placing viewers in the shoes of characters different to them, whether in background, behaviour, situation or temperament, remains key among its functions. Tom Hanks, the silver screen's beloved everyman of more than four decades, knows this. Veteran filmmaker Marc Forster does as well. After getting villainous in Elvis and sweet with Christopher Robin, respectively, the actor and director join forces for a feature advocating for understanding, kindness and acceptance. Behind that cranky nitpicker, local annoyance or rude aggressor might just lurk a story worth appreciating and a person worth knowing, it sentimentally posits.
This Americanisation of A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman's Swedish 2012 novel that first hit the screen in its native language in 2015, did indeed come about exactly as expected. Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson saw the Oscar-nominated OG movie, contacted its producer Fredrik Wikström Nicastro (Borg vs McEnroe), then went about making a US-set, Hanks-starring iteration. Wilson is now also one of A Man Called Otto's producers. Truman Hanks, Tom's youngest son with Wilson, co-stars as the young Otto (nabbing just his second on-screen credit after popping up in his dad's News of the World). This flick's smooth path to cinemas and the easy family ties behind it speak volumes about the film that results; despite focusing on a man repeatedly trying to take his own life, attempts at which are constantly interrupted by his rule-breaking neighbours, openly and breezily warming hearts and pleasing crowds is this remake's aim.
Misanthropic and embittered beyond even the internet's most pointless keyboard warriors, Otto hasn't met a scenario he can't sour with his resentment and sometimes downright cruelty. Cue arguing with hardware store workers about being charged for too much rope, yelling about dogs urinating on his lawn, denigrating walkers for their exercise attire, snapping at his forced retirement party, gruffly spouting property bylaws in his gated townhouse community and getting short with a stray cat. Hence the struggle to make his exit, too, because there's always someone or something to scold. Soon, that spans the pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño, Narcos: Mexico) and her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Lincoln Lawyer), who move in across the road with their kids Abbie (Alessandra Perez, To Leslie) and Luna (Christiana Montoya, The Guilty).
Otto starts shouting at Marisol and her family about poor parking skills, but she isn't just willing to grin and bear his persnicketiness or bad temper. A film that rebukes nastiness instead of justifying it with a sob story, this isn't, however. It can't be. Since A Man Called Otto is a star vehicle for Hanks, its namesake is instantly destined to become likeable well before the end credits roll. That transition is true to the Swedish source material, but it feels unearned here. Specifically, it plays like casting doing too much heavy lifting, because an adored, usually affable, reluctant-to-be-disagreeable actor is going to turn out that way, as he frequently does, in this kind of uncomplicated affair. It's also a missed opportunity to make a statement about unpleasant people who are jerks for the sake of it, but that isn't the tale that Backman wrote, Swedish filmmaker Hannes Holm (Ted — Show Me Love) initially adapted and screenwriter David Magee (Lady Chatterley's Lover) reuses.
Accordingly, Otto joins the ranks of surly and churlish on-screen men made that way by trauma (a dead wife in this case, played in flashbacks by Tokyo Vice's Rachel Keller, plus the isolation and loneliness he's been plagued with since her recent passing). Also, he's someone that everyone else can see goodness shining within even when he's at his worst. In other words, he's a scowling bag of cliches, which the movie endeavours to give depth via Hanks and Treviño. A Man Called Otto's best touch isn't pretending to get its high-profile lead playing against type, an approach that persuades no one. As a result, it isn't Hanks' committed but largely implausible efforts, either. Rather, it's ensuring that the charismatic Marisol is so convincing in her optimism, reluctance to let her crotchety neighbour bring her down and willingness to help anyone she can — selling why she, and anyone, would, could and should invest time and patience in Otto.
When a feature needs a good-natured supporting character to make its audience care about its hostile protagonist, that isn't a great sign. With A Man Called Otto, this can't have been the desired outcome — just a matter of expecting Hanks to do what Hanks does, his charm kicking in regardless of what's around him. Worse movies have made that bet before, even if the actor's resume is filled with far more highs than lows. Forster's picture almost goes all in, Treviño's canny portrayal aside, given how by-the-numbers it proves in most of its choices (including workmanlike cinematography by Christopher Robin's Matthias Koenigswieser and an emotion-signposting score by Operation Mincemeat's Thomas Newman). There's being easygoing and then there's just ticking the straightforward, unchallenging and plainest-to-see boxes, with the director behind everything from Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction to The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace and World War Z clearly going for the former and achieving the latter.
If the entirety of A Man Called Otto was as textured and luminous as Treviño's performance, viewers would've been gifted a better and less cloying film. That would've meant beefing up or ditching other plot points that happily skew broad and thin, and play like padding, such as rallying against exploitative corporations, turning Otto into a social-media star, using his fastidiousness to save the day, navigating multiple health conditions and serving up supposedly out-of-character nice deeds. And, it would've required giving gravity to Otto's recurrent suicide attempts, rather than being content with unamusing awkwardness. Also, it'd mean actually being funny, darkly, lightly, Curb Your Enthusiasm-style or otherwise. That said, the heartstring-pulling still works whenever Marisol is involved. A version of this tale from the scene-stealing Latin American character's perspective, unpacking issues of gender and race that this flick doesn't touch? That would've been refreshing, and might've also truly been loveable.
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