Review: ‘A Man Called Otto,’ Lovable Grouch

Tom Hanks stars as a grumpy old man in a remake of the Swedish original, directed by Marc Forster.

A funny thing happened on the way to committing suicide. 

The film opens in Dallas movie theaters Friday, January 6, via Sony Pictures.

Tom Hanks has a Tom Hanks problem, darn it. 

By this point in his long and distinguished career, in which he has played (almost) entirely heroic roles, it’s difficult to take him seriously as a grumpy old man. Indeed, he must do his level best not to be entirely charming; it feels disingenuous for him to play a disagreeable so-and-so who, even before he attends his retirement party, is already making arrangements for his own suicide. 

Truthfully, though, that’s one of truly tragic things about suicide: people who are clinically depressed, to the point that what they want most is to end the pain, whether it be physical or emotional in nature, do not always present as soneone you could point out in a crowd as suicidal. Often, the pain comes from deep inside, and the individual is either unwilling or, more frequently, unable to deal with the pain on their own and, especially, seek someone else’s help. 

Remaking Hannes Holm’s “shamelessly sentimental” — quoting myself — 2016 Swedish-language adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s popular novel En man som heter Ove, script writer David Magee (Finding Neverland, 2004) carries over the original’s kind-hearted character construction, moving the action to a mid-sized town in Ohio or Pennsylvania (where it was filmed) and changing the new neighbors from Middle Eastern to Mexican. The film spends less time in the past, reducing Otto’s memories to fond and/or bittersweet nostalgic highlights that inform his present, and allowing Tom Hanks to carry the primary emotional baggage to dramatize how Otto moves beyond his decision to end it all. 

Director Marc Forster keeps the shamelessly sentimental tone, however, and how could he not? Tom Hanks is a treasure, and even though the first half of the film requires a minimal investment in The Exceedingly Obvious, the latter half allows the elder Hanks to show, by the merest dampness in his eyes, a stiffening resolve in his face, or an adjustment in his body language, that he is, indeed, a very fine dramatic actor who also wrings every last laugh possible out of his familiar comic persona. 

Truman Hanks does his best to play Otto as a younger man who meets and marries Sonja, who is played by the wonderful Rachel Keller. As she has shown in her other roles, especially on the small screen in recent years (Legion, Fargo, Tokyo Vice), Keller is a vibrant performer who is capable of extreme fire and fury. Here, the role doesn’t call for that; consequently, it’s a much quieter performance that she modulates, probably to match more easily with Truman Hanks’ limited experience as an actor. It’s the relatively rare case in which an actor is called upon to play his real-life father as a younger man, and yes, the resemblance is uncanny. (His mother, Rita Wilson, also serves as one of the producers.)

Mariana Trevino has the rather thankless role of Marisol, pregnant mother of two darling girls and a mother of sorts to her own husband, Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who’s a bit of a lovable fool, but a loving father and a support to Marisol, to the extent that he can be. Marisol carries all the emotional burdens of her family, as well as Otto, which is a big load, but she has a big heart, so it’s all good. 

By reducing the dramatic load on Truman Hanks, the film loses out on creating an Otto who is entirely believable; lost in translation is his brilliance as an engineer and how that impacted his life and his relationship with Sonja. In its place, we have Tom Hanks, which is not a terrible thing to have, even if the film in which he stars ends up being a little bit less than it could have been, and lesser than the original adaptation.