Would you believe that Tom Hanks could be the grumpiest man in America? The long-working Hollywood actor who is generally perceived as one of the nicest guys in the business is known for his smile and his charm, but he’s also capable of stepping into darker roles, like the one he played in Road to Perdition, or just emphasizing seriousness, like in Captain Phillips or Sully. Hanks may not seem like the first choice to play the lead part in the American remake of the Oscar-nominated Swedish film A Man Called Ove, but it turns out that he’s the perfect fit.
Otto (Hanks) is such a curmudgeon that he can’t even go through with the act of hanging himself with the rope that he argued he was being overcharged for because he spots a new neighbor parking poorly on the other side of the street. Devastated by the recent loss of his wife, Sonya, Otto spends every moment trying to enforce the rules others are breaking in his neighborhood. Perceiving his intervention as an act of kindness, that same neighbor, Marisol (Mariana Treviño), returns the favor and begins pushing an unwanted friendship on a man more than ready to leave everything and everyone behind.
A Man Called Ove was originally a book, published in 2012 by Fredrik Backman in Sweden. The original news that the successful Swedish film adaptation would be remade with Hanks starring in an English-language production was met with some skepticism, but fortunately, this new version is in excellent hands with director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee, who previously collaborated on Finding Neverland in 2004. There is a certain degree of heart present, but it doesn’t overwhelm the film or make it feel overly sappy.
One of the tools used to tell Otto’s story is the use of frequent flashbacks, which feature Hanks’ real-life son Truman as his younger self, meeting Sonya (Rachel Keller) on a train platform and beginning an idyllic life together. Having someone other than the elder Hanks portray that part of his narrative, especially with the uncanny physical resemblance, is effective because it feels like a distant memory and not the reality he is living in the moment. Piecing together the course of events that turned him into a cantankerous old man is also a useful element of how the film plays out, adding more reasons to develop sympathy for the eternally irritable Otto.
A Man Called Otto functions well as a true blend of comedy and drama, with many laughs to be found and a solid amount of serious content. The unhappiness that Otto feels in every moment is palpable, but he chooses to engage with the world in a way that goes beyond not wanting to interact, instead insistent on correcting everyone else’s behavior. That determination to influence those who would rather live a less restricted existence is what makes the kinship he unexpectedly and unwillingly develops with Marisol all the more charming and endearing.
Hanks is a superb fit for this role, calibrating just how miserable Otto could possibly be and utilizing comic timing to ensure that his rude remarks also have a certain wittiness to them. The true star of the film, however, is Treviño, who arrives unassumingly but quickly makes her presence known, responding to every one of Otto’s attempted insults with warmth and optimism, something that serves to both befuddle him and make him angrier. She manages to upstage the lead of the film with her spunk and deliver an entertaining and very memorable performance. The cast also includes Cameron Britton as an excitable neighbor and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Marisol’s husband, and the ensemble works together to enhance this very entertaining moviegoing experience. A Man Called Otto is a perfectly positive instance of a remake, one that uses its American setting to its advantage and delivers an altogether worthwhile new version of the story.
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A Man Called Otto opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 30th and expands in January.