There may still be a luminous corner in one’s mind that harkens back to moviegoing in the past. Or at least, home engagement with films beyond the mainstream, or even the American-made. One might remember the year, though not exactly the film, or its point of origin. It was Sweden, Hannes Holm was the director, and the film was A Man Called Ove. Released to American audiences at the peak of a memorable 2016, it earned mutual appreciation from audiences, critics, and the Academy, losing the International Film prize to Iran. Its overall impact, in tandem with Fredrik Backmann’s original novel, left filmmakers on this continent scrambling to capitalize. Why that is, I won’t understand. Nevertheless, the code’s been cracked on an Americanization of Holm’s exercise in curmudgeonly vindication, with inconsistent results.
Not that I could ever speak ill of director Marc Forster (Christopher Robin) or scribe David Magee (Mary Poppins Returns) on their past works, but A Man Called Otto is far from pitch-perfect for either. The pair occupy Holm’s work with straightforward focus, momentarily overcompensating for where Swedish eccentricities wouldn’t exactly translate as well. For those who know Ove’s story well enough, Otto’s (Tom Hanks) will be familiar enough, until it suddenly isn’t. Pushing into his mid-sixties, the recently laid-off engineer faces a quandary with his future. Still gripping with the loss of his wife Sonya (Rachel Keller) to cancer, his gated neighborhood of modest apartments being slowly engulfed by condominium development, and a generational gap that continues to grow, the once content Otto is keen on a quick out, ready to join his love.
However, that’s not so easy to achieve, persistently distracted by new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), their family of four renting property across the street. Their cheerful, if not also overarching presence meets Otto’s misanthropic attitude with a weakening in his defenses, teaching her to be resourceful, while she discovers the once prominent beauty and tragedy of his younger self (coyly portrayed by Tom’s youngest son Truman). In times of either, Otto was living the Jimmy Stewart-Esque dream before reality took the sharpest downward turn.
Hanks proves how graceful he can be here, growing old but never losing his perpetually youthful spirit as Otto. Throughout the first half of Magee’s photoplay, however, it’s not an easy portrayal to warm up to. He comes off stiff, hesitant with how to express a grouchy “autumn years” attitude. Eventually, with the material, he does soften up to a marshmallow consistency. Firm enough to argue against the boot tread of progress, and spar on chemistry with a scene-stealing Treviño. Outspoken and enthusiastic as Hanks appears to balance out that generic gruffness, it’s a small outweigh versus Rolf Lassgård, the on-screen Ove.
That subtle Swedish charm does find its way into Forster’s vision, if only fleeting. What’s superimposed over that to make Otto’s plight relatable to American viewers almost eliminates its goodwill. The need for a villain, namely a developer (an otherwise steady Mike Birbiglia) whose outfit occupies one side of the Association’s vantage point, is fruitless. The threats of eviction toward Otto and his elderly neighbors lack purpose. And even the jubilance of youth struggles to leave an impression, complicating the grump’s thought process. A late-arriving “social media correspondent” (Kelly Lamor Wilson) capturing a recent series of honorable deeds, one of them Otto’s, can only propel the plot along, hindering the tranquility of Backmann’s novel.
Otto does still manage to quell the heartstrings when it can. As both father and son Hankses can attest, both can convey unfiltered compassion at the right moment. Truman, especially, with full gumption, whose spark with Keller fulfills unchallenged aptitude. Forster, meanwhile, sees immense thrill in staging the series of flashbacks inundating Otto’s life, a happier sort back in the day, with a cheery warmth throughout to align with Holm’s idea of repartee. All with Thomas Newman’s dusty, guitar-heavy soundtrack running like a flight of fancy in the background. When emotions run high, so does the spirit of Backmann’s story. Still no less studded and bumpy in this adaptation, it’s impossible to deny that charisma of life celebrated, bright, and optimistic even in the toughest scenario. I do wish that same zest could’ve crossed over to when Forster’s lens shifted to the present day.
Anyone who fondly remembers Ove, and even considers it an evergreen favorite of international filmmaking, may not embrace everything Forster is offering in A Man Called Otto. There were moments I did enjoy, others I could easily question as a rough move in the Americanization playbook. Overall, it is a needlessly mixed bag I could still recommend by virtue of a strong cast steering each plot nugget on a balanced curve. Though I may never forgive how much its director fumbles on echoing those efforts by the Swedes. What was once an oft-poetic display of personal evolution and forgiveness, regurgitates as a hit-and-miss affair with muddled energy and half-baked concepts. At its core, there’s still a fun adventure, just like its predecessor. Eventually, as Hanks meanders about, it’s a treasure worth uncovering. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
A Man Called Otto is in a certain number of theaters now, wide break to follow January 13; rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving suicide attempts, and language; 126 minutes.