A Man Called Otto
2023, PG-13, 126 min. Directed by Marc Forster. Starring Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Rachel Keller, Truman Hanks, Juanita Jennings, Cameron Britton, Mack Bayda, Peter Lawson Jones.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 6, 2023
I tend not to put too much stock in marketing copy, but A Man Called Otto’s tagline is a useful litmus test. If something in you rears up at the directive to “Fall in love with the grumpiest man in America,” then you’ll know to steer wide of this English-language adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling Swedish novel, A Man Called Ove. That tagline is an accurate summation of the film’s squish-together of cantankerous and cuddlesome.
Tom Hanks steps into the title role, rechristened Otto, a real grouch. (Lightly jowly and communicating largely in grunts, Hanks has seemingly entered his Walter Matthau era. I welcome it.) Recently forced into retirement and still reeling from his wife’s death six months prior, Otto spends his days patrolling his neighborhood for infractions – re-sorting the recycling bins, chasing down parking violators, and the like – while trying to avoid his pregnant neighbor Marisol (the wonderful Mariana Treviño) and reflecting on his past (Otto is played, somewhat blankly, as a young man by Hanks’ youngest son, Truman).
Otto is also preparing for his imminent suicide. That’s not a spoiler; we first encounter him purchasing rope for a noose and haggling over the price. But it is nonetheless, tonally, a real record-scratch moment the first time we watch Otto try to kill himself, and the filmmakers’ command of tone didn’t improve for me on Otto’s subsequent suicide attempts.
Magpie director Marc Forster has tried his hand at an almost comical number of genres, including misery porn (Monster’s Ball), meta-comedy (Stranger Than Fiction), zombie action-horror (World War Z), Bond thriller (Quantum of Solace), and literary-adaptation awards bait (Finding Neverland). The latter marked Forster’s first collaboration with Otto screenwriter David Magee, who’s twice been Oscar-nominated for his work adapting prestige books – Finding Neverland and Life of Pi – and here is working off the blueprint of Hannes Holm’s 2015 Swedish-language adaptation of A Man Called Ove, itself a two-time Oscar nominee. Forster and Magee seem perfectly pedigreed for the project, and that is perhaps the crux of the problem for me: I suspect this light comic take on paralyzing grief works much better on paper. On film, goosed along by Thomas Newman’s jaunty score and a generically weepy power ballad co-written and performed by Hanks’ wife and producing partner, Rita Wilson, the effect is hollow, placating. They’ve turned themes of great love, loss, and the will to keep going into … easy listening.