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A MAN CALLED OTTO (2022) review

January 12, 2023


written by: David Magee
produced by: Fredrik Wikström Nicastro, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks & Gary Goetzman
directed by: Marc Forster
rated: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving suicide attempts, and language)
runtime: 126 min.
U.S. release date: December 30, 2022 (limited) & January 13, 2023 (wide)


Knowing “A Man Called Otto” was coming out, I finally caught up with the 2015 Swedish dramedy “A Man Called Ove”, which was an adaptation of 2012 novel of the same name by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. That film, which was Oscar-nominated the following year for a Best Foreign Language Film, starred Rolf Lassgård as the curmudgeon title character, a 60-year-old widower who serves as the self-appointed chairman of the townhouse association he resides in. He’s about to give up on life when the kindness and warmth of his neighbors wear him down and gradually give him newfound purpose. It won me over with its whimsy and sincerity, without ever relying on heavy-handed antics or thickly laying on any kind of message. However, the American remake “A Man Called Otto”, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland” and “Christopher Robin”) didn’t have the same effect on me.

The skeleton of the story is ripe for Sony Pictures plucking and one can see why an English-Language adaptation was eminent. The crowd-pleasing moments from the Swedish film are transitioned over for “A Man Called Otto”, but it just doesn’t have the same tonal balance of navigating grieving pain and personal connection. Instead, screenwriter David Magee gives us an engrossing story that trips and falls on its own mishandled sincerity, pushing all the expected buttons just where you think they’ll be pushed.



Otto Anderson (Hanks) lives in the Birchwood Home Association, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He appears to be the miserable old man with a resting stink face who watches over his neighborhood with methodical control, berating those who don’t live by the community rules he adamantly upholds. He’s lived in the area for decades and was recently widowed by his late wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller), which finds Otto reflecting on the memories of their life together, often while visiting her nearby grave. Wracked with grief and hopelessness, Otto sets out to commit suicide in a private manner in an effort to reunite with his Sonya. But he finds himself continuously interrupted by his new neighbors – primarily Marisol (Mariana Treviño), a pregnant Mexican woman, married to Tommy (Manuel García-Rulfo) with two kids – and inevitably gets pulled into their world when their behavior seems to break up his structured thoughts on the way things ought to be. Initially cold to Marisol’s kindness, Otto is slowly won over by her indominable warmth and winds up making behavioral changes of his own as soon finds himself being useful as he teaches her how to drive and helps out around their house. With the help of Marisol, the gruff man starts to realize a newfound purpose that he never would’ve imagined on his own.

That all sounds great, but there are problems from the start with “A Man Called Otto” that sadly never rectify themselves. It’s one thing to offer a protagonist who’s miserable and grumpy, but when you add rude and mean to the mix, it’s hard to get on board with it all, especially when the character is portrayed by Tom Hanks. That’s not to say that the movie star can’t disappear into a role, but he sure has had a hard time of it in the past year (prime example: “Elvis”), and so often it is admittedly hard to divorce yourself from the fact that you’re watching Tom Hanks acting in a movie. It also doesn’t help that he’s known as Hollywood’s Nice Guy and here he’s playing an incorrigible grump who calls everyone an “Idiot!”, which makes it a challenge to commit to spending slightly over two hours with this guy. Of course an actor can stretch, but there’s reasons why certain roles have been turned down by actors. Clint Eastwood worked so well as Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino” because he spent much of his acting career as silent tough guys, so seeing him as a racist Korean War veteran in his “Get Off My Lawn! glory is a seamless fit. Not so much with Hanks, who just comes across a burned-out version of Woody, his character from the “Toy Story” movies, who was also a control freak like Otto.

As in the original film adaptation, the people who inhabit Otto’s neighborhood are the ones who eventually show him how he is perceived and who he can potentially be. Some of these characters are indeed annoyingly chipper, such as Jimmy (Cameron Britton), who can constantly be seen doing some light jogging up and down the sidewalk, while others are just seem to get in the way of Otto’s irritable (and often unreasonable) wrath, like Malcolm (Mack Bayda) a young man who juggles multiple jobs while getting around on his bicycle. We also see Otto encounter a real estate agent (an underused Mike Birbiglia) for a nearby elder care center that’s being built next to Birchwood, who gets on Otto’s few nerves by disobeying the rules and driving around closed metal gates in the neighborhood. The story would’ve benefited from seeing more of some of these supporting characters, like Anita (Juanita Jennings), who looks after her catatonic, wheelchair-bound husband, Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones), primarily because they’re Otto’s age and have a history with him. For a lead character who constantly thinks his way is the right way, it helps to have at least a few characters who have his number and see past his Angry Old Man persona.



The one person that does immediately see beyond Otto’s gruffness is Marisol, who refuses to be treated with the disdain that Otto typically dispenses. Supposedly, Otto isn’t aware of his brusque behavior (which is entirely hard to believe, especially when we learn about his past), but Marisol kindly sets him straight early on. If there’s any shining star in “A Man Called Otto” it’s Mariana Treviño, who plays Marisol as such an open and honest presence in the lives of everyone she meets. Her hopefulness is balanced just right with a warm vulnerability and traces of her own understandable insecurity. She comes across as the most fully-realized character in the film and I would much rather have seen a movie revolving around her optimistic character as she tries to engage with neighbors who are nothing like her. That being said, Hanks and Treveno have good chemistry together and their sweet and salty pairing makes the movie more bearable as Marisol slowly breaks down the barriers Otto has built over the years.

Of course, “A Man Called Otto” sets out to show (and tell) us how he wasn’t always like this. There are flashback scenes from Otto’s past with Sonya that flow throughout the story, primarily occurring during his attempts at suicide as he reflects on happier times. During these moments, we see a twentysomething Otto (played by Truman Hanks, one of Tom’s sons, who’s only other role was in his father’s “News of the World”, his 2020 acting debut) and learn how he met Sonya (still played by Kellar), a confident and kind-hearted woman who would become a school teacher for special needs children, despite a couple major setbacks in their lives. We also see when Otto and Sonya moved into the Birchwood community, when they were some of the first homeowners in the area, along with Anita and Reuben (Emonie Ellison and Laval Schley, playing respective younger versions) who became close friends with Otto and Sonya. We see that Sonya balanced out the typically quiet and reserved Otto and she was seen as a helpful neighbor who enthusiastically engaged with others. Without her around, Otto has defaulted to his introverted ways along with the added grief of losing the love of his life, which is why he feels killing himself is his best option.



Unfortunately, Forster and Magee utilize these flashback scenes in such an obviously Hallmark manner, it mostly winds up being quite distracting. It doesn’t help that composer Thomas Newman feels the need to amp up the score during key scenes to an intrusively tear-jerking level that is also quite obvious. It also doesn’t help that young Hanks doesn’t make much of an impact as young Otto. Granted all he has to do is be quiet and reserved, but his performance is more wooden than Keller’s, making them a mismatched pair. Sure, their supposed to be an “opposites attract” couple, but Keller winds up drawing more out of Hanks than she should. In the Swedish film, there was a distinctive difference between younger Ove and the old Ove. He was much more out of himself and engaging with others, while still being kind of shy and quiet. It was a good balance. Here, it just feels like the flashbacks are deliberately formulaic ways to remind us that the way someone is often has much to do with hardship they’ve experienced in life.

Whatever good influence Sonya had on Otto has apparently diminished with her passing, which is kind of baffling. If she was indeed the love of his life and made him a better person, wasn’t that stronger than the bitterness and sadness that holds him, which manifests itself as anger and rudeness? Too often “A Man Called Otto” chooses cutesiness over confrontation and misses opportunities to delve into a real character study. Forster and Magee are more concerned with scenes where a stray cat wins over the old man or Marisol and Tommy come home to find babysitter Otto sitting in their girl’s bedroom, having just put them to sleep. These are all cloyingly cute moments that would be fine if they were also balanced out with a more fully-realized portrait of who this man is now, not just who he was.

In that sense, “A Man Called Otto” seems more eager to win over audiences with a “feel-good” experience than the original film did. The marketing behind this movie mishandle the tone of the material, especially the use of the upbeat “End of the Line” by The Traveling Wilburys in one of the trailers. Ugh. There was a better psychological study in the previous film and one would assume the book. Clearly, this was a passion project for Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson (both serve as producers with Wilson singing an end credit ditty with Sebastián Yatra called “Til You’re Home”) and they saw how this universal story could transition stateside. It’s just too bad the depth of the Swedish film was lost in translation.





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