Tom Hanks teams with director Marc Forster for “A Man Called Otto”, the second film adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel “A Man Called Ove”. I loved its first big screen treatment from Hannes Holm. It’s a witty dark comedy but with a warm and tender center. That 2015 Swedish movie would go on to receive a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 89th Academy Awards. So Forster is following in some pretty big footsteps.
Hanks plays the titular character, Otto Anderson, a crusty old curmudgeon who we first meet reaming out two young associates at a hardware store. It’s the perfect introduction cranky and perpetually unpleasant 60-year-old Otto. He lives in a modest gated community where he runs things with an iron fist, despite having no real authority. He’s constantly annoyed by the “idiots” in his neighborhood who mostly take his griping with a grain of salt. He also clashes with the reps of a rich land development company who are trying hard to push him and the other residents out.
Adding to his soured view on life, Otto was recently forced to retire from a job he’s been at for 40 years. But what has affected him the most is the recent death of his beloved wife Sonya. Unable to fully cope with her loss, Otto decides to take his own life. Yet despite his determination, he discovers that killing himself is no easy task, in large part thanks to his new neighbors, Marisol (a very good Mariana Treviño), her kind but inept husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their two adorable young daughters, who unknowingly interrupt every attempt he makes.
As you can tell, there’s definitely a black comedy element that I honestly expected to be sanitized in this American version of the story. But Forster and screenwriter David Magee (“Life of Pi”) stay faithful and the movie is better for it. Watching Otto buy rope, call to cancel his utilities, lay visqueen across his floor, and dress up in his best suit one last time is both sad and solemn. But Forster never lets things get too dour. The young and vibrant new family next door routinely inject a timely dose of heart and humor. To Forster’s credit, he does a nice job balancing both elements.
There are several other supporting characters who weave in and out of the movie. Some add warmth, some are there simply to serve Otto’s redemption, and some feel like well-intended but tacked-on attempts at updating the story. The plot-lines work much the same, with some adding good laughs and feel-good moments while others seem thrown in for one effect or another. This is where the movie can come off as a bit uneven.
But it all revolves around Hanks and his effortlessly good performance. The ever likable actor does a good job selling himself as an irritable grouch, even though we know the movie is about him softening up over time. He also has some good chemistry with Treviño who has an inherent sweetness that eventually melts Otto’s stony heart. Hanks sells his transformation too, never getting too schmaltzy or over-the-top with it. The material occasionally handcuffs him (such as his sudden undercooked relationship with one of his wife’s former students), but Hanks keeps things afloat, earning a few chuckles and our empathy along the way.
“The Man Called Otto” doesn’t quite have the edge or the oomph of Holm’s 2015 film, but it has more than enough to win over some audiences. It’s a fairly effective crowdpleaser that admittedly might have caused this old leathery film critic to mist up a time or two. And with the always enjoyable (and bankable) Tom Hanks as its lead, you would figure it should grab some attention. But it is releasing in what has become known as the January movie wasteland, so how it will do is anyone’s guess. “A Man Called Ottot” opens in theaters January 6th.