Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 28th, 2022
A Man Called Otto (Marc Forster, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s 2012 book A Man Called Ove was previously adapted for the screen, in its native tongue, in 2015. Now comes the English-language version, starring Tom Hanks (Elvis) as “Otto,” the name changed to make it less foreign to American viewers. As much as I initially rolled my eyes at the prospect of yet another remake of a previously made movie—and one that did its cinematic job quite nicely, thank you—this new film, from director Marc Forster (Christopher Robin), nevertheless holds its own, and then some, providing both comedy and emotionally wrenching moments in equal measure.
Though parts of it lapse into easy sentimentality and not all of its performances rank equal, the result is an overall moving narrative that leaves us laughing and crying by the end. If such catharsis is what you seek, à la Pixar’s 2009 Up, then A Man Called Otto is for you. A warning for the viewer is warranted first, however: attempted suicide plays a big role here.
For Otto suffers from despair, his beloved wife Sonya dead six months now and his will to live gone, especially now that he has been more or less forcibly retired from the factory where he worked as an engineer. A sprightly sixtysomething man, he comes across as a curmudgeon to everyone he encounters, his neighbors by now used to the officious way he patrols the planned community they share, noting down any and all infraction of rules. But what no one realizes is how close he is to ending it all.
Sad tales work best leavened with copious amounts of humor, not only to break up the misery, but also by way of contrast so that life has meaning beyond pain. There should be something to strive for, some lifting of the spirits. Here, such energy comes from the new family moving in across the street: a Spanish-speaking married couple (from a few different Latin American countries) with two young daughters and a third child on the way.
Marisol (a delightful Mariana Treviño, Perfect Strangers), the powerhouse matriarch, proves to be Otto’s well-meaning foil, unknowingly preventing a few of his efforts to kill himself and demanding that he be better to those around him. Surprisingly, he begins to respond. All the while, we learn more and more about Otto’s past life and how he became the angry old man he is today.
It turns out he is as capable of doing as much good as bad, and given the right impetus, can indeed rise to the occasion (with a few bumps on the way). Hanks makes the process of self-improvement believable (and enjoyable), aided by a supporting cast that includes not only the wonderful Treviño but also Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Dos Estaciones), Juanita Jennings, Rachel Keller (Butcher’s Crossing), and others, including one very well-trained, sweet cat named Schmagel. And though Truman Hanks—son of Tom—is no great actor, his work as the young Otto, if rough, has enough charm and innocence to generate the compassion we need to feel for him.
Though often corny and sometimes facile, A Man Called Otto manages to gel, time and again. And with a conclusion that pulls no punches, the film earns the bittersweet joy it throws at us. Life is complicated; pull up a chair.