America’s dad convincingly becomes the grumpy neighbor next door but can only stay unlikable for so long.
There is a Tom Hanks factor that ends up elevating whatever material he takes on. As has often been observed, he’s the closest thing to a modern-era Jimmy Stewart. Like Stewart, Hanks has made an effort to complicate his nice guy persona in this third act of his career. A Man Called Otto is the latest comparison point. While not especially risky, this remake of the 2015 Danish film A Man Called Ove still has an edge. That the film survives its journey to the States with that sharpness intact is something audiences can chalk up to the Hanks Factor.
Otto (Hanks) does his morning rounds in his neighborhood cul-de-sac, a tyrant wielding HOA rules and an unpleasant demeanor in place of a saber and soldiers. “You can’t park here without a permit,” he shouts at the UPS driver. He checks the fence that deters drivers from getting in. Check the recycle bins. Sneers at a disheveled cat that wanders the neighborhood. Between his rounds, Otto mutters under his breath or barks at his neighbors. They respond by trying to kill Otto with kindness.
Under this comedic neighborhood grump show roils genuine painful emotion. After losing his wife in a terrible accident, Otto has been steadily spinning out and downward. By the time the audience meets him, he’s on the precipice of ending his own life with a coil of hardware store-purchased rope. Before he can, though, there are new neighbors to boss around.
They are Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), and two daughters. They are ignorantly sweet and refuse to let Otto’s bitterness interfere with their neighborly intentions. It’s within this relationship—and a delightful performance by Treviño—where the film thrives. It’s a bit like the tale of The Grinch stripped of tinsel. The new neighbors are the Whos and Otto is our Grinch, quietly aching to break open and accept their love. They pick at our sentiments and Otto’s hard shell in equal measure until we’re as invested as they are in reawakening the aging man’s heart.
Alas, everything outside the family feels undercooked. The screenplay by David Magee, based on Fredrik Backman’s book and Hannes Holm’s Danish script, suffers in attempting expansion. Subplots about evil insurance companies and people too absorbed in their phones to stop potential tragedies feel wedged in only to tip our sentiments toward Otto further. It all rings like forced hollow cynicism. There’s plenty disappointing about modern life. No need to gild the lily.
If you can get past the ice-cold center, A Man Called Otto has a big warm heart.
Forster seems at his best, instead, when trying to capture the quiet moments of gentle sweetness that are easy to lose among life’s accumulating disappointments. For example, a meet-cute between Otto (Hanks’ youngest son Truman in flashback; the Nepo-Baby strikes again!) and his wife (Rachel Keller) is darling. Unfortunately, it is also too short-lived.
A Man Called Otto gives whiplash vacillating between these too-brief moments—Otto teaches Marisol to drive, Otto babysits—and yet another suicide attempt. One gets a sense that Forster wants to go darker but can’t commit to letting Hanks be that mean or that bereft. Of course, we all love the kind and charming Hanks, so the struggle is understandable. That doesn’t necessarily make watching the director wrestle between impulses enjoyable to sit through, though.
Ultimately there is a calming factor, a bittersweet center, and an emotional ending that strikes a chord. It’s the type of movie you bring your parents or grandparents for a smooth night at the theater. Playing a grizzled man might seem out of Hanks’ persona, but he makes it work. If you can get past the ice-cold center, A Man Called Otto has a big warm heart.
A Man Called Otto will be annoyed with how you park starting January 6 in theatres.