It’s now been seven years since the Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove (2015) became an Oscar nominee for Best International Film and Best Makeup, and it was a critical and commercial success as it generated nearly $30 million in worldwide box-office with high praise from film critics. It didn’t take much convincing for Sony Pictures Releasing to greenlight the project other than finding the right lead with a slightly different title in A Man Called Otto, a formulaic remake that rehashes the crowd-pleasing elements we have seen before with endless other remakes of many other international films. While the remake has the same narrative and plot, the original felt more irreverent and didn’t come off as hokey as Marc Forster’s recent feature, but Tom Hanks’s lead performance anchors the film where his inevitable character growth gains joy, and Hank’s character of the grumpy Otto holds a lot of sharp banter and even some belly laughs that are undeniably comical. This is the type of film you can safely recommend to your co-workers, friends of family, and family members. In fact, nearly everyone who watches A Man Named Otto would probably find some joy. A Man Called Otto is going to be a tougher sell in today’s pro-streaming environment since Tom Hanks doesn’t have the box office clout he once had, but he remains a beloved actor.
Even so, A Man Called Otto feels like a throwback to 90s or 2000s era comedy dramas like As Good As It Gets or About Schmidt, which were both about a lonely and irritable elderly man who is also very grumpy and rude to people, in which they find an arc throughout the narrative. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, World War Z) and screenwriter David Magee collaborate on their second film together (the other one being Finding Neverland) and are able to fine-tune the characters out of sitcomish stereotypes with some adequate character depth, affecting dialogue, and amusing exchanges, Even though the film has many missteps and becomes trite in many areas, the film’s earnestness holds some charm.
Hank’s, in contrast to his often-genuinely nice guy schtick, is connivingly grumpy this time around as Otto, a widower who is tormented by the recent death of his wife Sonya (played in flashbacks by Rachel Keller), and you can sense a man tormented by grief and memories. When not spending time with others, he constantly badgers them on etiquette, the importance of following rules in his homeowner associations; Otto even finds himself debating a hardware store clerk on how to cut rope, and he becomes even more aggravated once he’s charged thirty extra cents for an extra yard of rope, which he attempts to use to hang himself. Luckily, our protagonist is in a feature film that’s a crowd pleaser, so the suicide attempts go awry after the rope collapses from the hitch on the top of the celling, and he keeps getting disrupted by his new neighbors, Marisol (Mariana Trevino) and her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), which instantly drives Otto crazy since Marisol doesn’t know how to drive, and her husband Tommy doesn’t know how to back up a car properly with a hitch.
As we follow Hanks as Otto, Hanks actually drifts from his cruel uptightness to a warm heart with a balanced measure. It’s unlike anything Hanks has ever played before, but he pulls it off with convincing sincerity.The flashbacks with Hanks’s real-life son, Truman Hanks, as a young Otto feel very clunky and dislocated. You would like to call it “Like Father, Like Son,” but their mannerisms or traits feel at odds with one another, so you aren’t completely convinced they are playing the same character. Truman feels too quaint and timid for the character. One could argue one grows more irritable and tormented as one ages, especially if one loses their significant other the way Otto has, but even their passions and knowledge for engineering feel mismatched.
As the narrative progresses, it stays very faithful to the Swedish version of Ove. Otto attempts other suicides; we discover he has a heart condition, and he just can’t keep living without his dead wife. He is constantly interrupted by Tommy and Marisol, in which Trevino is undeniably charming and the heart of the film. Each exchange Marisol and Otto have together is memorable and well-acted, especially the moment in the film where Otto teaches her to drive. Tommy is always asking Otto to borrow wrenches and ladders, and he requests other odd favors. Otto certainly doesn’t like their company, and he’s very blunt with what’s on his mind. Marisol and Tommy don’t take the hint, and somehow, they can sense a sad man with a big heart. Marisol ends up bringing him Mexican dishes, cookies, and they inevitably bond.
We also get an array of other supporting characters, such as an elderly woman named Anita (Juanita Jennings), who holds some disconnect with Otto, but requests his assistance to bleed the radiator to warm her house. Her husband, Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones), is an old friend of Otto’s, and he is recovering from a stroke and can’t speak but makes his presence known. There is also Jimmy (Cameron Britton), who is always working out around the neighborhood in the most animated ways, and there is a kind transgender teenager named Malcolm (Mack Bayda), who delivers newspapers, works a few jobs, and is kicked out of his house by his dad. Malcolm was once a student of Otto’s wife, who addressed him respectfully by his name and pronoun. Of course, there is a cat that makes things even more schmaltzy. You can see where the story is going right from the very beginning, and you know Otto is going to have epiphanies and a change of heart as he suffers from a heart condition. He even becomes a local hero here after he saves a man from an oncoming train after he falls off the platform at a train station because people are too distracted by their phones.
Yes, the more selective filmgoers will be deeply annoyed by the film’s predictability and mawkish manipulations, but audiences who enjoy genuine crowd-pleasers will be rooting for it all the way. At its core, A Man Called Otto really wants to be the jewel in the awards season slate of prestige films and character dramas that feature great actors, but it’s really just a very trite film with very little ambition. Despite all of the film’s shortcomings and schmaltz, the film does grow on you, as does Otto and the likeable supporting characters, and how they lift and empower Otto’s quest to find fulfillment ends on a very familiar but fond note.
A Man Called Otto is now playing in limited theaters and opens wide on Friday, January 13th.