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Tom Hanks Stars in Tonally Awkward Adaptation

Jan 13, 2023


Within the opening moments of A Man Called Otto, the second adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove, you can see the problems inherent in this retelling. Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) is a grumpy man in his 60s who we first see at a hardware store. He rudely tells the employee (played by Please Don’t Destroy’s John Higgins) that he would like to cut the length of rope he wants himself, then complains when he’s overcharged pennies for what he is buying. The whole time, Thomas Newman’s quirky score hints at a jovial story underneath the crotchety man we see before us. After quickly visiting his retirement party and some prickly interactions with his neighbors, we discover that Otto bought this rope with the intention to hang himself in his living room.
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This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who read the Backman book, or saw 2015’s Swedish film adaptation of this story. But this version, from Christopher Robin and Finding Neverland director Marc Forster, handles the mixtures of comedy and drama in a peculiar and often bizarre way that both negates much of the emotional heft of the story, and sometimes leads to unintentional humor.

Otto is a man that is mad at the world. In addition to his frustrations with being asked to retire, Otto is constantly getting annoyed at the younger people he comes across on a daily basis, as well as the people who follow the arbitrary rules that he’s placed on the neighborhood. But mostly, Otto is angry at the world because he no longer gets to live in it with his wife Sonya, who recently died. While visiting her grave, Otto states “nothing works when you’re not at home,” and for the gruff man who actually grumbles for people to get off his lawn, it’s clear he wants things to work exactly how he likes, and now, life can no longer be repaired in the way he needs it to be.

Image via Sony

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Otto’s plans to return to his wife, as he puts it, are paused when Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and her family move in to the neighborhood. Otto and Marisol strike up an unlikely friendship, and Otto begins to see the small joys in life as he helps his new neighbors.

Throughout A Man Called Otto, we also get to see Otto’s memories of when he was younger (played by Truman Hanks) and getting to know Sonya (Rachel Keller). While it’s important that we see the beginnings of Otto and Sonya’s relationship, the eccentricities of Forster’s approach become most apparent in these flashbacks. The relationship between Otto and Sonya feels more like the bond between a brother and sister, and while the younger Otto seems like he might be on the spectrum, we never get much of an inclination that that is also the case with the older Otto.

These flashbacks are also intended to be some of the most powerful moments within the film, and yet, the way Forster brings them to life is peculiar and undercuts their potential. For example, these moments often come when Otto is attempting suicide, and Forster’s decision to go back-and-forth between these youthful moments and Otto trying to take his own life is truly unusual. Plus, the film’s heavy-handed choices in songs are at their worst in these moments, as these egregious choices are distractingly bad, and these scenes would be far more effective had they been excised altogether.

Image via Sony

The screenplay from David Magee, who previously collaborated with Forster on Finding Neverland, and this year alone has written The School for Good and Evil and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, has its heart in the right place, but the attempts to make the audience cry are blunt and too obvious. A Man Called Otto also almost feels like it’s part of an exaggerated version of our world, where the young folks are almost always wrong, and things aren’t as good as they used to be “back in my day.” At one point, an older man falls on a train track, and Otto jumps down to retrieve him. The other younger people waiting on the train, however, are more focused on filming the incident and getting the right angle on the old man than actually helping. It’s just one of a few silly details that break the humanity that Magee is attempting to cultivate in this story. Magee has proven a deft hand with slow-burn films that make the waterworks come eventually, like with Finding Neverland and Life of Pi, but the somewhat awkward performances of the younger Otto and Sonya, mixed with the extremely questionable music choices undercuts what is primarily a story about a man falling in love with life again.

A Man Called Otto also comes at the end of one of Hanks’ weirdest years, which has seen him play Colonel Tom Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, and take on the role of Geppetto in Robert Zemeckis’ nightmarish Pinocchio update. A Man Called Otto is certainly a better example of Hanks’ gifts, however, as no matter how cantankerous Otto gets, we still love the guy because it’s Tom Hanks. Yet Hanks doesn’t shy away from the darker moments, as we believe that Otto truly has lost the will to live, and especially the moments where he visits his wife’s grave and talks about how she’s coming to her soon are heartbreaking because of Hanks’ performance.

Image via Sony Pictures Releasing 

But despite the name, the real star of A Man Called Otto is Treviño as Marisol, who right away doesn’t put up with Otto’s crap and handles him with both sternness and love—the way Sonya also did. From the moment Treviño appears in the film, we can feel her warmth for Otto and the entire community she is now a part of. Through her role, we see how found families can be just as important as real family, and how through experiences with others, those we’ve lost can still live on in a way. Naturally, A Man Called Otto is at its best when the coldness of Otto and the love of Marisol play off each other, as we watch this friendship blossom.

Especially compared to the 2015 adaptation, A Man Called Otto is a clunky update that often feels like it’s full of cartoonish characters, with poor music choices, and cloying sentimentality. But when Forster and Magee pull away from these eccentricities, the story of Otto and Marisol is often a thing of beauty, and wonderful friendship that is lovely to watch grow. It’s easy when watching A Man Called Otto to feel like Otto: frustrated by most of what’s going on, but with brief glimmers of the beauty within the world around you.

Rating: C+

A Man Called Otto comes to theaters in limited release starting on December 30, followed by a wider release on January 13, 2023.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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