Tom Hanks is a grumpy protagonist in Marc Forster’s remake of the 2015 Swedish drama

A Man Called Otto

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‘A Man Called Otto’

Dir: Marc Forster. US/Sweden. 2022. 126mins

Tom Hanks gets grumpy for A Man Called Otto, a story focused on a widower who is unpleasant to everyone around him and a remake of the 2015 Oscar-nominated Swedish film A Man Called Ove. Director Marc Forster lends this lightweight comedy-drama a crowd-pleasing breeziness, but the picture never cuts particularly deep, especially noticeable when it tries to tackle some darker subject matter. Audiences simply wanting an undemanding, reassuring entertainment may not mind, but Hanks’ change-of-pace role is intriguing enough to wish the material wasn’t quite so mawkish.

Forster has difficulty balancing the script’s comedic elements and the more serious moments

Sony’s modest tearjerker opens in the US on December 30, arriving in the UK in early January. The original film, which was based on Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, earned two Oscar nominations, and certainly Hanks’ star power should help raise visibility among adult viewers. Mixed reviews might hamper commercial results, however. 

Otto (Hanks) lives alone since the death of his wife, snarling at anyone who comes into his orbit. Perpetually irritable and silently inconsolable, he has decided to kill himself, but his different suicide attempts fail — in part because he’s interrupted by the arrival of a new family in his neighbourhood, led by the pregnant, effusive matriarch Marisol (Mariana Trevino). Otto wants nothing to do with her and her jubilant outlook but she refuses to be shut out, forcing this taciturn widower to embrace the world around him.

Aided by Thomas Newman’s ornamental score, Forster (Christopher Robin) has fashioned a likeable film that’s not appreciably different from the 2015 adaptation, save for the transplanting of the action from Sweden to Pennsylvania. Both pictures are unabashed in their ambition to generate laughs and tears, and encourage audiences to cherish being alive, even when times are hard. And like the earlier film, A Man Called Otto presents us with a protagonist who’s meant to be a cold curmudgeon but is, in fact, someone beaten down by hardships, lashing out at the tragedies he has endured. 

Hanks has mostly played idealistic, bighearted characters, occasionally subverting his image through more grounded portrayals in films like Captain Phillips, so it’s initially gratifying to watch him as the scowling, miserable Otto. But the problem is that it quickly becomes apparent that Otto’s anger is merely a facade — and that immigrant Marisol and her vivacious family, including two adorable young daughters (Christiana Montoya, Alessandra Perez), will shake him out of his doldrums. Hanks doesn’t really invest in his character’s darkness, and so it’s merely a question of how soon until Otto drops his guard and shows his softer side.

The ease of that transformation keeps A Man Called Otto from being particularly inspirational or poignant. In addition, Forster has difficulty balancing the script’s comedic elements — including Otto’s exasperation with his incessantly perky neighbours — and the more serious moments in which this widower gets close to ending his life. Hanks is an underrated dramatic actor, but these sequences are so insubstantial that it never feels like Otto is in the depths of despair. Consequently, the film runs the risk of diminishing the anguish of suicidal depression, reducing it to a cutesy plot point. Whenever the picture touches on raw emotions, it quickly retreats to safer, more comforting sentiments so that viewers never need to doubt the inevitable happy ending.

A series of flashbacks, with Hanks’ son Truman playing Otto as a carefree younger man, start to flesh out the character’s backstory, retracing his love affair with the luminous Sonia (Rachel Keller). But even those unfamiliar with Backman’s book or the 2015 film will suspect that this blissful pair are headed for heartbreak, and the eventual reveal is handled in a melodramatic fashion that’s manipulative and also a little dishonest. (As with A Man Called Ove, there’s an important tidbit about Otto’s dead wife that is concealed simply so that it can be a bigger shock later in the picture.) 

The rapport between Hanks and Trevino somewhat alleviates the film’s shortcomings, with Trevino successfully elevating a one-dimensional character into a believable portrait of a defiantly positive person. In small doses, the friction between Otto’s tetchy demeanour and Marisol’s stubborn resistance to his bullying can be endearing. But there’s also something pat about this opposites-attract friendship, and the filmmakers are notably incurious about exploring this immigrant’s fraught journey to America: indeed, A Man Called Otto is only concerned with Marisol insofar as how she can help Otto change his ways. The picture argues that we should appreciate our lives, but ultimately it’s only really interested in one person.

Production companies: SF Studios, Artistic Films, Playtone, 2DUX²

Worldwide distribution: Sony

Producers: Fredrik Wikstrom Nicastro, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman

Screenplay: David Magee, based upon the novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and the film A Man Called Ove by Hannes Holm

Cinematography: Matthias Koenigswieser 

Production design: Barbara Ling 

Editing: Matt Chesse 

Music: Thomas Newman

Main cast: Tom Hanks, Mariana Trevino, Rachel Keller, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Truman Hanks, Mike Birbiglia