If you were to look up the word ‘curmudgeon’ in the dictionary, you just might find a picture of Otto Anderson. He personifies the word. He’s cranky and generally unfriendly. As he walks around his neighbourhood on his daily patrol he has choice words for those he comes into contact with. He has names for the teenager delivering fliers. The lady whose dog might have urinated on his lawn, or the condo developers that speed down his street? He has a name for her. He mutters under his breath when he visits the recycling area. There, people have put plastic in the paper receptacle and cans where glass should be. The whole world is full of idiots.
Yet, Otto (Tom Hanks) has not always been this way. What he has been is a creature of habit, a principled man. The sort of person to whom dependability is the most important quality. He lived a life of right and wrong, black and white, that is until his wife Sonya came and injected colour into his world. Then Otto lived a great life of romance and happiness. But, like most stories, this was not sustainable. Otto also ended up knowing enormous tragedy, and now as he retires from his engineering job. He is also mourning the loss of his true love and planning on how to join her in death.
That is, until a new neighbour moves in across the street. That neighbour, Marisol (Mariana Treviño), is a fast talking, quick witted woman. She has a not so bright husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and two children. Together, all of them noisily announce their presence in Otto’s lonely, quiet life. Now, with disruption all around him, Otto must make some choices. Big life choices. End of life choices. He must decide whether to embrace the darkness of his grief or let a sliver of light illuminate the colour once again.
A Man Called Otto is adapted from the book A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. It was adapted already into a Swedish film of the same name in 2015. For better or worse, I’ve neither read the book nor seen the original film, so this review stands on its own. I’ve heard only good things about the original movie, which has a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, Hollywood can’t just let it be, they must make a successful entity their own. Subtitles apparently aren’t good enough.
I suppose when you have beloved star Tom Hanks attached it’s enough to encourage a remake. So, screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi) takes a stab at this version. With him is director Marc Forster (also Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) at the helm. It’s a team with enough credits behind them to feel there could be a great film ahead, yet A Man Called Otto is instead – fine.
Tom Hanks has a reputation that’s exactly the opposite of a curmudgeon. Here, he enthusiastically scowls and grumbles his way through Otto but with enough sensitivity to keep his character likeable throughout. I feel like we all know an Otto to some degree. At the beginning of the film he argues with a shop attendant about wanting to buy five feet of rope, yet the store has to charge him for two yards. The difference is less than 40 cents but Otto is not having it. I could picture my father (sorry Dad if you’re reading this, but you know it’s true!) doing the exact same thing. It’s not that Otto is grumpy for no reason, it’s the principle. Hanks, seems to relish the role, being cast against type, and his performance anchors the film.
A Man Called Otto is somewhat of a Hanks family venture, with Rita Wilson credited, alongside her husband, as producer. And their son Truman Hanks playing a young Otto in his first big acting credit. His flashback scenes alongside Rachel Keller (Tokyo Vice) as Sonya are charming and moving enough to bring Otto’s frame of mind into focus. Yet it is Mariana Treviño that becomes the most memorable player here. As Marisol she is particularly engaging and charismatic. Her scenes with Tom Hanks become the most emotional of the film, and their character’s friendship becomes difficult not to root for.
A seemingly unnecessary remake, A Man Called Otto unabashedly plays off its ‘grumpy old man’ tropes and ventures into a predictable over-sentimentality. There’s nothing you won’t see coming here. Forster’s adaptation plays it safe. It stays mainly surface level, despite the opportunity for deeper commentary on how, as a society, we devalue the differently-abled as well as seniors. The film does somewhat delve into issues of corporate greed. But A Man Called Otto remains exactly what you expect and what the trailer makes it out to be.
And yet, A Man Called Otto is affable enough to be a simple, crowd-pleasing, tear-jerker. I found myself wishing, yet again, for the house lights to stay dim a little longer, my tear glands not able to resist the 126 minute manipulation. With Hanks and Treviño at the soul of this film, there is enough heart to keep it worthy of the tears, as well as warm the cynic in each of us.