'A Man Called Otto' review: Grouchy Tom Hanks coasts through tepid melodrama
Courtesy of Sony
America’s dad is getting a makeover, or is trying to broaden his horizons. That’d be Tom Hanks who’s recent streak of tackling roles outside his normal purview, from layering on a thick accent as Colonel Tom Parker in last summer’s box office smash “Elvis,” trying to sing as Gepatto in the atrocious Disney+ remake of “Pinocchio,” and now playing a grumpy curmudgeon headlining “A Man Called Otto,” deserves credit for showcasing a vast range in the late stage of his career. Alas, “A Man Called Otto,” a remake of the Oscar nominated Swedish language film “A Man Called Ove,” which was based on the best selling novel by Fredrik Backman, never becomes more than a movie about a grumpy old man who finds minor compassion through the goodness of others. Formulaic movies are the bread and butter of moviegoing (audiences feel a sense of comfort when given exactly what they expect) but everyone involved, including Hanks, deserved better than what “A Man Called Otto” delivers.
Hanks plays the titular Otto, a Scrooge-esq character who has all but thrown in the towel after the death of his wife. The movie never gives a clear timeline as to when she passed (the tombstone shown in the movie reflects differently from what people say in the film), but it’s been long enough to where Otto can’t see a life worth living. Instead, he spends his days patrolling around the condo association (as the unofficial neighborhood watch president) and enforcing archaic rules nobody cares about. He insists people must park a certain way and that delivery drivers don’t use the private driveway for drop offs.
It’s obvious his wife’s passing has altered a train of thought within him: life is unjust and therefore everyone must abide by a code of ethics as some sort of retaliation for the hand he was dealt. To his credit, Hanks can pull depth from reading a dictionary let alone a screenplay keen on checking predictable boxes of a formulaic dramedy rather than understanding how grief affects individuals. Still, Hank’s performance suggests that deep down, Otto is a personable guy who, at one point, was appreciated by his fellow peers. Why else would everyone stop and say hi to him despite the constant smug looks and cold shoulder?
Part of this is reaffirmed in flashbacks (where Hanks’ son Truman Hanks, plays a younger version of himself) where Otto meets his future wife and we witness how kindhearted and sincere he used to be. Elements of those early days start to manifest, against Otto’s will, when a pair of new neighbors, a young couple played by Mariana Trevino and Manuel Garcia Rulfo and their two children, move across the street. Naturally, Otto becomes chummy with the family - taking the kids to their doctor's appointment, babysitting, and even fixing their faulty dishwasher. There’s no rhyme or reason to why he would be chosen as a beacon for this family, but formulaic movies have a way of ironing out the details.
And no matter how detached with reality some of the sequences become (in one of the films several silly subplots, Otto encounters his wife's former student who he finds out is displaced because they don’t align with their family’s traditional values; and there’s a cartoonish real estate mogul, played by Mike Birbiglia, trying to force residents out of their homes on dumb technicalities), “A Man Called Otto” sticks to the script, all but promising things will work out in the end. It’s fine that we end up at this point, but better directed and scripted movies will make you forget about the cliches which preceded them. Except director Marc Forster’s “A Man Called Otto” doesn’t leave you with any resounding satisfaction, just that you saw a crotchety Tom Hanks performance trying to sustain a tepid melodrama in search of some deeper, unrealized meaning.
A MAN CALLED OTTO opens in wide release Friday, January 13th.