A Man Called Otto – movie review

Hollywood has a habit of remaking popular European films, rather than merely releasing the subtitled original and thus broadening the audiences’ horizons and cultural experience. The latest film to undergo the bland Hollywood treatment is the 2015 Swedish comedy/drama A Man Called Ove, which was the highest grossing foreign language film for 2016 in the US. That film was adapted from Fredrik Backman‘s best-selling novel that dealt with universal themes of friendship, community, mortality.

Apparently, Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson saw the Swedish film and they liked it so much that they acquired the rights for this English language remake. The result is a feel-good film about how a lonely and slightly bitter man finds his life turned upside down and gets a second chance at life.

Hanks himself takes the lead role of Otto Anderson, a curmudgeonly and misanthropic widower who patrols the streets of the Birchwood Home Association, his local gated housing community. He spends his days telling off people who do not use the recycling bins appropriately, who do not correctly display their parking permits, or who occasionally let their dogs do their business on his lawn. Every day he follows a strict routine, interacting in terse fashion with his neighbours, who seem surprisingly tolerant of his peccadilloes. But unexpectedly his life is turned upside down with the arrival of new neighbours across the street.

When the film opens, Otto has just been made redundant from his engineering job after twenty years, and now, with nothing left to live for, he considers ending his life. But his careful preparations and efforts are interrupted by the arrival of a young new family across the street. Otto finds himself responding to the feisty and heavily pregnant Marisol (Mariana Trevino), her “idiot husband” Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their two precocious young daughters. She keeps intruding on his plans, asking him to babysit her daughters or to drive her somewhere. “You don’t have a license? How old are you?” he berates her.

Slowly the film strips away Otto’s layers of reserve and through a series of flashback sequences we learn more about his life and backstory, which adds a level of pathos to the material. We learn how the younger Otto met the love of his life in Sonya (Rachel Keller), a teacher. But after she was left crippled in a bus crash, he devoted much of his energies to caring for her, which resulted in a rift between him and his best friend Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones), who now suffers from a crippling illness. Six months ago, the wheelchair bound Sonya died, and Otto has struggled to cope ever since.

Other encounters that impact on the grumpy Otto include the power walking neighbour Jimmy (Cameron Britton), and local paper delivery boy Malcolm (Mark Bayda), who fondly remembers Sonya as his favourite teacher and an empathetic person. And unexpectedly a stray cat becomes attached to him as well.

A Man Called Otto has been directed by Marc Forster, a journeyman filmmaker who has directed a diverse range of films. They range from Quantum of Solace (arguably the lesser of the Daniel Craig Bond canon) to action movies like Machine Gun Preacher and more family-friendly fare like Finding Neverland and Christopher Robin. But he fails to stamp his films with any hint of his own personal style. The script for this bittersweet comedy/drama has been written by David Magee (The School of Good and Evil), and it follows the original fairly faithfully. However, with Forster’s often heavy-handed direction the result is somewhat tonally uneven. A Man Called Otto is more sentimental and schmaltzy in nature that the original, which had a slightly darker edge to it, but it is sure to resonate with audiences of a certain age.

As expected, Hanks brings an essentially decent quality and a droll charm to his performance here and he carries the film. He is an inherently nice guy and so we know it won’t be too long before Otto’s hard exterior begins to thaw and he lets other people into his life. Trevino offers solid support as the lively, energetic Marisol, a force of nature who refuses to let Otto’s abrupt manner slow her down or deter her from breaking down his defenses. Hanks and Trevino develop a wonderful dynamic that makes the film eminently watchable as they trade quips and verbal barbs. In a nice piece of casting the younger Otto is played by Hanks’ own son Truman, but he lacks his Oscar winning father’s sense of gravitas and emotional depth and connection to a character.

The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser (Christopher Robin), while Thomas Newman’s score hits all the right emotional beats even if it is a tad manipulative.

Greg King

Other reviews you might enjoy: