Tom Hanks gives another inspiring performance in A Man Called Otto, a drippy remake of the 2015 Swedish film, A Man Called Ove, based on the novel by Fredrik Backman. The original’s ambiguous narrative and Nordic grit has been slapped with an Americanized soundtrack, which tells you how to feel every second, contrived supporting characters ripped from the Hallmark Channel, and a strategically placed cat in case everything else fails (well, the original had a cat also). Still, for all its formulaic goofiness, Hanks makes this clunky vehicle run smoothly. This is Tom Hanks after all, the modern-day Jimmy Stewart, and he gives a naturalistic performance in a movie that’s anything but.
Hanks plays Otto, a cantankerous retiree who lectures his neighbors on everything from throwing recyclables in the correct bins to keeping car permits taped to the windshield to cleaning up after their dogs. He’s the geriatric version of the neighborhood watch, and a nasty one at that. Strangely, his neighbors don’t seem very perturbed by his malevolent behavior. Even when he calls them idiots to their faces, they just shake their heads as if to say, “Oh golly, there goes Otto again.” And bam, right from the start, we know we’re in fairy-dust land where real human beings don’t exist and caricatures from a screenplay come to frolic. Some might rejoice in the escapist silliness, while others might need a few yoga breaths to prepare for the emotional manipulation to come.
It’s almost a relief when Otto tries to hang himself in his living room. Perhaps this movie is darker than we thought. No such luck. Every suicide attempt is comedically thwarted by his new neighbors, Marisol and Tommy (Mariana Trevino and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who have two cute daughters and another on the way. Predictably, Otto develops a relationship with them, particularly Marisol who seems intent on breaking through Otto’s craggy bearing. Mexican stage actress Trevino is especially good in a role usually relegated to a shrug. She matches Hanks scene for scene with a bare vulnerability that gives the paint-by-numbers screenplay some emotional heft.
Just as Otto’s nasty personality starts to grate, director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi) inject flashbacks of a young Otto, played by Hank’s son Truman. He meets cute and falls in love with his late wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller) and though their romance is about as convincing and steamy as Joe Pesci’s and Sharon Stone’s in Casino, these scenes give us a glimpse into Otto’s temperament. Even before life threw some curveballs his way, Otto stood on the sidelines, reluctant to get his hands dirty.
Otto can only attain a modicum of peace by fixing things. A retired engineer, his approach to life is purely pragmatic; gooey emotions are for the weak. His apartment doesn’t have a speck of dust in it, and he keeps a neat and orderly set of tools in his equally spotless garage. Since Marisol and Tommy aren’t capable of repairing anything in their new house, Otto helps out, more out of a sense of propriety and frustration than friendliness. Before you know it, our Scrooge-like hero begins to soften. As the cracks appear in his armor, we begin to understand how he became so reticent and angry in the first place.
Make no mistake about it, this is pure melodrama distilled to its last tear-jerked drop. However, the filmmakers’ dedication to their material is admirable. They dive headfirst into a swamp of sentiment and don’t care if they crawl out looking like sea monsters. Unlike last year’s dreadful Ticket to Paradise, which was so unnerving and self-conscious, you wanted to lend it a self-help book to find its identity, this movie never wavers from its path. Is it brainless and schmaltzy? Good Lord, yes. Are the characters drawn with thick, broad strokes of drippy paint whose fumes threaten to suffocate your intellect? Yep. But does the narrative suddenly switch gears and get all screwball comedy to appease its audience out of restlessness or embarrassment? Never.
Even the most skeptical of moviegoers will be moved by A Man Called Otto’s undeniable warmth and timely message about looking past one’s surface to see the person inside. You just might reach for the Kleenex, then get angry at yourself for doing so. But there’s a better reason to see this film than its cuddly theme: Tom Hanks. Although he’s not playing against type by inhabiting the skin of a curmudgeonly old man (he played Colonel Parker in last year’s Elvis for God’s sake), Hanks has the uncanny, almost innate ability to humanize inner conflict. From Big to Saving Private Ryan, the classic Hanks’ character seems to suffer quietly even if his demeanor says otherwise. In that regard, Otto is the ultimate Hanks portrayal, and it’s a dandy. If only some of that blinding Hollywood gloss was stripped away so we could see what’s really happening behind those forlorn eyes.
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