Producers: Fredrik Wikstrom Nicastro, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman Director: Marc Forster Screenplay: David Magee Cast: Tom Hanks, Mariana Trevino, Rachel Keller, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Truman Hanks, Mike Birbiglia, Cameron Britton, Juanita Jennings, Peter Lawson Jones, Mack Bayda, Kailey Hyman, Christiana Montoya and Alessandra Perez Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing/Columbia Pictures
One of the oldest formulas in the book—the one about the old curmudgeon who mellows under the influence of people drawn to him despite his surliness—is repeated in this film by writer David Magee and director Marc Forster, who collaborated on “Finding Neverland” back in 2004. The familiarity is compounded by the fact that “A Man Called Otto” in an English-language remake of Hannes Holm’s Swedish dramedy “A Man Called Ove,” based on a novel by Fredrik Backman, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2016. The fact that the cranky old man originally played by Peter Lassgård is now played by Tom Hanks has naturally led wags to suggest that the new version should really be called “Forrest Grump.”
That’s really too dismissive, though. “A Man Called Otto” is a bit more sentimental and manipulative than its predecessor, but not by much; both are mildly successful middlebrow crowd-pleasers, perhaps best described as not unpleasant examples of the “Christmas Carol” template. It makes some changes, (a gay character in the original now identifies as transgender, for example), but not monumental ones, and they certainly don’t alter its essential character. (In fact, Magee sometimes is entirely too faithful: it doesn’t seem likely that a long friendship would be broken over a dispute over preferred car brands.) So the two films are basically identical, and those who saw the original mostly enjoyed it, though with reservations. The same should apply to this remake.
Otto Anderson (Hanks) is a crusty old widower who’s just been unceremoniously retired from his job. He’s an inveterate rule-enforcer back in his small neighborhood, even though he’s no longer in charge of the owners’ association. He’s estranged from his oldest friends Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones) and Anita (Juanita Jennings) and is consistently rude to gregarious jogger Jimmy (Cameron Britton) and a sleazy developer (Mike Birbiglia) who’s trying to buy up all the property around his. He nastily shoos away a stray cat. In fact the only time he exhibits a human side is when he visits the grave of his beloved wife. It’s to her that he confides his intention to commit suicide and join her.
Though he’s expert in all things mechanical and fastidious in his arrangements, however, his suicide attempts either fail due to flawed preparation or are interrupted, most often by accidental interventions from a family newly arrived in the neighborhood, voluble Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her inept husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their adorable little daughters Luna and Abbie (Christiana Montoya and Alessandra Perez). Gradually he melts in response to their proffer of friendship, winding up a virtual grandfather, babysitting for the girls and giving Marisol driving lessons. He also reconnects with Reuben and Anita, whom that developer is trying to evict, and even adopts the cat.
And that’s not all. He becomes a local hero thanks to a “social media journalist” (Kailey Hyman) after he rescues a man who falls on a train track (an incident suffused with irony, since he’s trying to kill himself) and befriends that transgender youth Malcolm (Mack Bayda), who, as it happens, feels a debt of gratitude to Otto’s late wife Sonya, a schoolteacher. Raising the schmaltz meter further are a multitude of flashbacks to shy Otto’s wooing of and married life with her, in which Rachel Keller plays Sonya and Hank’s own son Truman the young Otto. It was, we learn, a relationship marked by love but tinged with tragedy.
The ever-reliable Hanks dominates the narrative, apparently relishing the relatively rare opportunity to play grumpy rather than nice—at least until the mellowing takes root. Although it’s really a bit of stunt casting, Truman (in only his second film role—the first being a brief turn in his father’s “News of the World”) gets by as Otto’s younger self, and Keller shines as Sonya. The breakout performer, though, is undoubtedly Treviño, who even manages to steal scenes from Hanks, not to mention everyone else (including, incredibly, Montoya and Perez). The rest of the cast is mostly deferential. The Pittsburg-shot picture benefits from solid contributions from production designer Barbara Ling and cinematographer Matthias Keonigswieser, but the editing by Matt Chesse often feels too leisurely, though of course that also has to be chalked up to Forster’s directorial choices. Thomas Newman’s score too often embraces the material’s invitation to add perky or maudlin touches.
As with the original, most viewers should find “A Man Called Otto” palatable if not memorable. Not a ringing endorsement, perhaps, but an accurate one.