Directed by: Marc Foster
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Releasing
Written by Patrick Hao
When I worked at a midtown New York City theater in 2016, the surprise hit of the theater was the Swedish film, “A Man Called Ove,” directed by Hannes Holm. Nothing appealed to the rich older Upper West Side crowd than a decidedly middle-brow dramedy whose Swedishness made it sophisticated enough to cover its saccharine sweetness. Those same qualities made the original Swedish novel by Fredrik Backman a New York Times bestseller, bound for book clubs that were meant for wine as much as it is for discussing the book. The crowd-pleasing nature of the source material made it ripe for an American remake, and if you had read the book and seen the original movie, Marc Foster’s “A Man Called Otto,” does not deviate much from what worked.
Otto (Tom Hanks), the Americanized name of Ove, is a grouch. To him, everyone around him is stupid, with the inability to do things. Why can’t the store charge him for five feet of rope instead of six when he wants five feet? Why can’t the neighbors and UPS trucks follow the simple rules of his gated suburban home? Yet, it becomes clear that his grouchiness does not mean that he is a bad person. Instead, quite the opposite, as it becomes clear to his new neighbors, the married couple of Marisol (Mariana Trevino), who is pregnant, and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their two children. Marisol, played with immense likability by Trevino, may be the only reason to see this movie, immediately sees through Otto’s tough exterior, especially as Otto offers to help the family. His kindness extends beyond the family as he helps his next-door neighbor and former rival Rueben (Peter Lawson Jones) and his wife Anita (Juanita Jennings) keep their home, and takes a transgender teen (Mack Bayda) under his wing.
The dark twist of it all is that Otto is trying to commit suicide. He was not always this grouchy, but with the recent loss of his wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller), he does not see much reason to live without her. Through flashbacks, shot with a syrupy dreamy color, the only time Foster has any stylistic flourish, we see that Otto (played by Hanks’ son, Truman) was a simple man who wanted to be a mechanic smitten by the more well-read Sonya. Their romance is cute and simple if not a little undeveloped and mawkish.
The movie does not surprise. The comedy comes from Otto finding himself grumbling over situations that Marisol and Tommy put him in, and Hanks is charming in that respect. As late period Hanks continues to progress, this is another performance in which he puts on a voice and is trying to play with his “American Dad” image. His voice sounds like he gargled asphalt for a night, but its affected nature can be quite distracting.
“A Man Called Otto” is ultimately another entry into “Nicecore” cinema, the pantheon of which includes “Paddington” and “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” And as an entry into that “Otto” is pleasant and heartwarming enough. Like those films, “Otto” preaches the importance of community action. The villain of the film is a real estate conglomerate whose agent (Mike Birbiglia) is trying to buy properties to build more condos. Everything does tie together too neatly. Even though the film is inherently dark in its premise, the film sidesteps any thorny issues of depression or prejudice (both in racial and gender terms), and it is all solved with a neoliberal kumbaya sense of unity. It’s a feel good movie after all.
“A Man Called Otto” is the movie equivalent of a diner coffee. It is not good nor bad, but it’s consumable without much protest. In a way, this is the type of middle-of-the-road film that does not get wide released anymore. There needs to be more widely released movies that garner a collective shrug from those who watch them. Middle-income 60-year-olds are the oft-forgotten demographic of cinema.
“A Man Called Otto” Trailer