Review: ‘A Man Called Otto,’ starring Tom Hanks

December 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Hanks in “A Man Called Otto” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures)

“A Man Called Otto”

Directed by Marc Forster

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh, in 2018 and 2019, the comedy/drama film “A Man Called Otto” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A grouchy, suicidal widower gets a new outlook on life when a young family moves into a home across the street from him. 

Culture Audience: “A Man Called Otto” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Hanks; the 2015/2016 Swedish movie and 2012 book “A Man Called Ove,” on which the American remake is based; and movies that try too hard to wring emotions out of people with broadly portrayed characters and scenarios.

Tom Hanks and Mariana Treviño in “A Man Called Otto” (Photo by Dennis Mong/Columbia Pictures)

“A Man Called Otto” bulldozes over the realistic charm of Sweden’s “A Man Called Ove” and gives it an inferior Hollywood treatment full of overly staged smarm. There are much better “grumpy old man” movies out there, including the Oscar-nominated comedy/drama “A Man Called Ove” (released in Sweden and Norway in 2015, and elsewhere in 2016), which viewers should see before or instead of “A Man Called Otto.” Anyone who watches both movies can see how much “A Man Called Otto” stumbles as a disappointing remake. Everything about “A Man Called Otto” looks like it’s a made-for-TV formulaic film, instead of being a cinematic experience worthy of the price of a movie ticket.

Directed by Marc Forster and written by David Magee, “A Man Called Otto” has absolutely no improvements from the movie “A Man Called Ove,” which was written and directed by Hannes Holm. Both movies are based on Fredrik Backman’s 2012 Swedish novel “A Man Called Ove.” Instead of making creative advancements to “A Man Called Ove,” what “A Man Called Otto” actually does is make a few lazy tweaks to some of the characters and scenarios and actually “dumbs down” a lot of the material. It all results in some annoying dialogue, a comedic tone that’s more appropriate for a TV sitcom, and an abundance of characters who are less believable and more superficial than they need to be.

“A Man Called Otto” keeps the same basic concept of “A Man Called Ove”—a grouchy widower in his 60s is forced to take an “early retirement” from his factory job. He is so grief-stricken over the death of his beloved wife (who passed away from cancer less than a year ago), he decides to commit suicide. His suicide attempts get interrupted by a variety of circumstances that begin when a young couple with two daughters under the age of 10 move across the street from this angry old man. Throughout the movie, there are flashbacks that show viewers some details about this grouch’s past, to explain why he ended up the way that he is.

In “A Man Called Otto” (which takes place in Pittsburgh, in 2018 and 2019), Tom Hanks is Otto Anderson, the bitter protagonist of the story. At the beginning of the movie, Otto’s wife Sonya died six months earlier. Otto is the type of miserable complainer who has to find fault with almost everything that people do when they have the misfortune of interacting with him. The movie opens with a scene of Otto at a hardware store, where he berates a hapless sales clerk (played by John Higgins) about Otto’s purchase of five feet of rope. Otto has a problem with the sale because the measurement charges are per yard, not per foot.

In “A Man Called Ove,” the opening scene shows protagonist Ove Lindahl (played by Rolf Lassgård) haggling over a sale price in a store, but Ove is buying a flower bouquet to put on his late wife’s grave. Both movies then show how this cranky protagonist is nasty and mean-spirited to his neighbors, including a woman with a small dog that he detests. He insults the dog’s owner and the dog in very harsh and demeaning ways.

Both movies have a nosy but cheerful neighbor named Jimmy (played by Cameron Britton in “A Man Called Otto” and Klas Wiljergård in “A Man Called Ove”), who apparently has nothing better to do with his time but exercise outdoors and gossip about other people’s business in the neighborhood. Both movies also have a stray cat that sometimes hangs out in the grumpy old man’s front yard. He angrily shoos away the cat every time he sees it, until that predictable turning point when he warms up to the cat and starts to treat the cat like a pet.

Otto doesn’t know it yet, but his life is about to be changed when a young family moves across the street from him in a rental house. Marisol Mendez (played by Mariana Treviño) and Tommy Mendez (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) have two adorable daughters: Luna (played by Christiana Montoya) is about 6 or 7 years old. Abbie (played by Alessandra Perez) is about 4 or 5 years old. During most of the movie, Marisol is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

Tommy is an information technology consultant, who was born and raised in the United States. Marisol is a homemaker who was born in El Salvador and was raised in Mexico. When the Mendez family arrives in the neighborhood with a U-Haul storage unit towed behind the family car, Otto is immediately rude to them and yells at Tommy for how Tommy is parallel parking the car. In frustration, Otto gets in the car to show Tommy how parallel parking should be done. Otto also lectures these newcomers about the parking rules and other regulations in the neighborhood.

Otto is still unfriendly when Tommy and Marisol show up at Otto’s door with a neighborly gift: a container of Pollo Con Mole. Otto doesn’t know how to be appreciative, and he gets annoyed when talkative Marisol tries to engage Otto in an amiable conversation. Marisol is 30 years old in “A Man Called Otto,” but she sometimes acts a lot less mature than 30. Over time, Marisol and Otto continue to cross paths, and she seems determined to become Otto’s friend.

It’s a personality difference from the Persian-immigrant pregnant wife Parvaneh (played by Bahar Pars), who is part of the young family who moves in across the street in “A Man Called Ove.” Parvaneh wasn’t so much of a people pleaser, and she realistically clashed with Ove because she wasn’t trying so hard to be his friend. Parvaneh also didn’t tolerate Ove’s insults as much as Marisol tolerates Otto’s insults. In other words, Parvaneh was no pushover, and Otto sort of met his match with her. Marisol having such a relentlessly perky personality will get on the nerves of anyone who likes and appreciates “A Man Called Ove.”

“A Man Called Otto” also has an inferior way of handling immigrant issues, compared to how “A Man Called Ove” handles these issues. Marisol is written and portrayed in ethnic clichés of being a loud, fast-talking, high-strung Latina. Marisol also sometimes comes across as ditzy, which is not a flattering portrayal when Latin/Hispanic representation on screen already over-uses the negative stereotype that immigrants of Latin/Hispanic heritage in the United States are less intelligent than white Americans.

By contrast, Parvaneh in “A Man Called Ove” (whose love partner is a white Swedish man named Patrik, played by Tobias Almborg) is intelligent (she’s portrayed as having more common sense than Patrik), and she truly felt like more an immigrant outsider in the neighborhood. There are no other people near her who can speak Parvaneh’s first language or who come from her native culture. In “A Man Called Otto,” Marisol and Tommy, who have a shared Latin/Hispanic heritage, both speak Spanish and English fluently. “A Man Called Ove” also shows that Parvaneh didn’t really have a support system in raising her children, whereas “A Man Called Otto” shows that Marisol and Tommy have relatives who visit them and help look after the kids.

It’s this deeper sense of isolation that makes the evolution of the relationship between Parvaneh and Ove (who is isolated in a different way) more meaningful and genuine in “A Man Called Ove,” compared to how the relationship between Marisol and Otto evolves in much more contrived way in “A Man Called Otto.” “A Man Called Ove” also portrays in a more realistic way how stressful it is to be a pregnant mother taking care of two other children under the age of 10. Parvaneh is not as patient and saintly as Marisol. In other words, Parvenah is more authentic and relatable.

“A Man Called Otto” also reveals way too early in the movie that Otto has a health condition, and the movie over-relies on flashbacks related to this health condition. Therefore, all of this telegraphing ruins or diminishes the impact of a plot development toward the end of the movie. Only the most naïve or inattentive viewers won’t see this plot development coming. By contrast, the flashbacks in “A Man Called Ove” are much more poignant, including a backstory involving a young Ove (played by Viktor Baagøe as 7-year-old Ove and by Filip Berg as teenage/young adult Ove) and Ove’s father (played by Stefan Gödicke) that is essentially removed from “A Man Called Otto,” which mishandles the flashbacks in a jumbled manner.

Viewers of “A Man Called Otto” eventually see that Otto bought the rope at the hardware store to use as a noose to hang himself in his living room. He tries other ways to commit suicide, but every time he tries to kill himself, something happens to remind him (even if Otto doesn’t see the signs) that his life is worth living. “A Man Called Ove” delivers these life-affirming messages in well-crafted ways, in contrast to “A Man Called Otto” which has all the subtlety of a jackhammer on full blast.

After Sonya’s death, the closest that Otto has had to a family is a longtime friendship with a married couple in the neighborhood named Reuben (played by Peter Lawson Jones) and Anita (played by Juanita Jennings), who are about the same age as Otto. Reuben, who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, is now mute and needs a wheelchair to move around. There’s a subplot about a plan to put Reuben in a nursing home, against the objections of Anita, who wants to remain as Reuben’s full-time caretaker.

It’s the same subplot as in “A Man Called Ove,” except that “A Man Called Otto” adds an unseen character (Anita and Reuben’s estranged adult son, who lives in Japan) as the “villain” instigator in this scenario. Mike Birbiglia has a one-dimensional “other villain” role as an unnamed real-estate agent for a company called Dye & Merica, which has been trying to convince many of the elderly residents of the neighborhood to sell their homes, so that Dye & Merica can redevelop the area to have pricier homes. This greedy and opportunisitic real-estate agent and some of his co-workers constantly patrol the neighborhood in their Dye & Merica vehicles.

Otto and Reuben used to be best friends, but (for reasons shown in some of the movie’s flashbacks) their relationship fractured before Reuben’s health issues happened. These reasons are treated with much more care and skill in “A Man Called Ove,” compared to “A Man Called Otto” which rushes through a superficial treatment of these reasons. These sloppily written flashbacks might leave “A Man Called Otto” viewers baffled over how over Otto and Reuben would stop talking to each other over something that’s not very well-explained in the movie.

The best flashbacks in “A Man Called Otto” have to do with the relationship between a young adult Otto (played by Truman Hanks, Tom Hanks’ real-life son) and Sonya (played by Rachel Keller), but these Otto/Sonya flashbacks aren’t nearly as well-done as the Ove/Sonja flashbacks in “A Man Called Ove,” which features a radiant Ida Engvoll as Ove’s wife Sonja. Through these flashbacks, viewers learn that Otto wasn’t always a bitter and angry man. He was still very uptight and stringent about following rules, but he had a much kinder spirit and a more generous heart. The flashbacks in “A Man Called Ove” do a better job of showing how the protagonist overcame some major challenges in his younger life.

“A Man Called Otto” slightly changes a subplot involving a LGBTQ character in the movie. In “A Man Called Ove,” Sonja used to be a high-school teacher, and one of her recent students named Adrian (played by Simon Edenroth) delivers newspapers in the neighborhood. This teenager has another job working at a cafe, where one of his slightly older co-workers named Misrad (played by Poyan Karimi) is openly gay and ends up temporarily staying with Otto after getting kicked out of his home for being gay. In a “Man Called Otto,” there is no gay cafe co-worker. The newspaper-delivering student is a transgender male teen named Malcolm (played by Mack Bayda), and Malcolm is the one who gets kicked out of his home.

“A Man Called Otto” copies “A Man Called Ove” in showing how Otto visits his late wife’s grave and talks out loud to her in emotionally vulnerable moments. But then, there are changes in “A Man Called Otto” that aren’t for the better. For example, both movies have a scene where the protagonist gets into a conflict at a hospital with a man dressed as a clown, whose job is to cheer up people at the hospital. The clown performs a magic trick with a coin that has a lot of sentimental value to the protagonist, who accuses the clown of stealing the clown after the clown performs the trick.

In “A Man Called Ove,” Ove gets angry by stepping on the clown’s shoes to trip clown. In “A Man Called Otto,” Otto tackles and fully punches the clown to try to get the coin. This assault is not shown in “A Man Called Otto,” but it’s talked about in the movie when the police arrive at the hospital to investigate. “A Man Called Otto” stretches out this clown conflict to an unnecessary length when it looks like Otto will be arrested for it. It’s a very clumsily handled and unnecessary detour to the plot in “A Man Called Otto.”

If there’s any saving grace to “A Man Called Otto,” it’s that all of the performances are watchable and have moments of being entertaining. But it’s not enough to make it a great movie, especially when everything is so heavy-handed in portraying issues that deserved less Hollywood phoniness and more authenticity. A key scene of the suicidal protagonist at a train station is a perfect example of how “A Man Called Otto” is a lower-quality film, compared to “A Man Called Ove.”

In “A Man Called Otto,” Tom Hanks (who is one of the movie’s producers) is just doing another version of a cranky old widower character that has been done already in dozens of other movies and TV shows. Robert De Niro has been doing this type of repetitive role in formulaic comedy films for many years. Hanks doesn’t deserve extra praise for doing the same thing, just because Hanks usually plays “nice guys” in his movies. “A Man Called Otto” is not as bad as most of De Niro’s comedy films. But considering that “A Man Called Otto” is a remake of an Oscar-nominated film, it’s a shame that “A Man Called Otto” did not improve on the original movie and instead turned the best parts into mediocre mush.

Columbia Pictures will release “A Man Called Otto” in select U.S. cinemas on December 30, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 6, 2023, and January 13, 2023.

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