A Non-Swedish Meatball — A Man Called Otto
I can’t believe I’d ever have to say this, but, man it has really been a down year for Tom Hanks, huh? He’s been in three films this year, and all of them are incredibly flawed for one reason or another. He was clearly the worst part of Elvis, thanks to the abhorrent makeup job and the even worse country-fried Dutch accent he affected. He was somehow talked into doing Disney’s soulless live-action remake of Pinocchio for reasons known but to our Lord and Savior L. Ron Hubbard. And now, he stars in A Man Called Otto, by far his best output of 2022 by default. It’s a mildly pleasant, treacly crowd-pleaser, and it does have some decent moments, but it’s still, at best, a copy of a far superior work.
The film is an Americanized remake of the 2015 Swedish film, A Man Called Ove, and the 2012 novel of the same name. And if you think I’m picking nits by calling it a “remake” rather than a “re-adaptation,” the opening credits of the movie itself admit that both are considered the source material. I understand the idea of localizing great projects for audiences that might otherwise not be exposed, but Ove was nominated for International Feature and Makeup at the Oscars, and has enjoyed a decent amount of success in international streaming and DVD traffic, so it’s not like no one could find it if they wanted to.
Hanks plays Otto, a widower in his 60s who lives in a small row of townhouses surrounded by more high-end properties. He was once the head of the Homeowner’s Association, but was removed by his former best friend Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones) for being too grouchy and demanding of the residents when it comes to following neighborhood regulations (things like shoveling walkways, parking permit displays, and designated areas for pets to do their business). Despite this, Otto maintains a daily ritual of policing the block, arguing with everyone he encounters while also fighting off real-estate developers (led by Mike Birbiglia) who want to buy out the units, force the people out, and demolish the homes to make way for yet another “luxury” apartment building with exorbitant rent and ownership prices. Just about every conversation ends with Otto walking away, grumbling about how everyone is an idiot and how no one has any respect for the rules. He’s essentially the inverse of Mr. Rogers, which is jarring considering Hanks has literally played Mr. Rogers.
After the latest insult, being prodded into an early retirement because he wouldn’t agree to a drastic reduction in hours and salary, Otto has decided to kill himself. His attempt is interrupted by the arrival of a new family across the street, led by the assertive and brilliant Marisol (Mariana Treviño). Seeing her try in vain to get her dullard husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) to parallel park properly, Otto puts his death on hold to snidely help them, meeting their two young daughters (Christiana Montoya and Alessandra Perez) in the process (Marisol is also very pregnant with her third child).
For his act of kindness, Marisol quickly latches onto Otto as a new friend, support resource, and surrogate grandpa, much to his chagrin. Otto continues trying to kill himself, greeting the void by flashing back to his earlier life with his late wife Sonya (Rachel Keller; the young Otto played by Hanks’ son Truman), and each time he’s stopped by a deus ex machina circumstance that requires his attention, everything from driving Tommy to the hospital after he falls off a ladder (which he borrowed from Otto but didn’t use properly) to adopting a stray cat left found half-freezing in the snow. All of this sudden reliance annoys him in the extreme, but he tolerates it, and he begins to re-ingratiate himself with his neighbors, including the exuberant Jimmy (Cameron Britton), transgender paperboy Malcolm (Mack Bayda), and Reuben’s wife Anita (Juanita Jennings), who takes care of the near-catatonic HOA director after he’s suffered a stroke.
None of this is significantly different from the Swedish film, save for Malcolm. In the original, the newspaper delivery comes from a kid named Adrian who has a gay friend called Mirsad, so they just combined two characters here and switched the type of sexual diversity. Otherwise, everything’s the same apart from the names and demographics. In the original, the new neighbors are Iranian, and here they’re Mexican. The Scandinavian setting is replaced with Pittsburgh. Even the feud that drove Otto and Reuben apart is down to the exact same bit of stubborn silliness — cars. In Ove, it was Volvo vs. Saab, in Otto it’s Chevy vs. Ford, with the final straw being that Reuben bought a Toyota.
So, quite literally, there is not one original thought in this entire picture. This is why, in general, remakes are a bad idea. Nothing is added here, and crucially, two of the major aspects that made Ove so charming are for all intents and purposes cut out. The action surrounding them is still there, but they’re not played properly, so the impact is lost.
First, the reason that the original movie still sticks in my memory seven years later is because Ove’s multiple suicide attempts are played for dark laughs. In that unique, almost stereotypical way that Swedes can embrace darkness and death, Ove not being able to kill himself is a running gag. He’s either stopped at every turn due to the expert comic timing of the script, or he’s hilariously inept at doing it. He can fix literally any other mechanical, logistical, or engineering problem presented to him, but he can’t properly rig a noose to support his weight. While suicide is a very serious subject, and in 99% of cases should be treated as such, Ove was the rare film that could create some solid gallows humor out of this irony. Here, it’s just played for cheap pathos.
Two, part of the reason that Ove is a malcontent is because everybody around him expects him to do stuff for them for nothing in return. It’s not that they owe him money or anything, but the fact that the neighbors all ask him for favors and then flout the rules of their road that he’s fought so hard to maintain is a major slight in his eyes. It’s one thing to be needed, but it’s quite another to be wanted and appreciated. Ever since his wife died, he hasn’t had that emotional satisfaction of knowing he’s done something good, which is why the arrival of the new family changes his worldview, because they go out of their way to show gratitude. Marisol does this as well in this film, giving Otto some food (including cookies) when he bails them out, but for the longest time their relationship feels transactional until the story calls for it not to. It’s a very sudden shift, with Marisol guilting him for his selfishness, whereas before it flowed much more naturally.
Now, despite these major issues, the movie is still enjoyable. Hanks gives a solid performance (both Hankses, really), making you believe that America’s Dad could actually turn into a curmudgeon. Treviño is also quite good, proving at every turn why she wears the (pregnancy) pants in the family, and ever willing to call Otto out on his presumptions and bullshit without judging him too harshly for it. Even though this is beat-for-beat the exact same film as before, I still laughed when I was supposed to. And for what it’s worth, the shortlisted Original Song (“Til You’re Home,” running during the semi-animated credits) is charming on its own, and even more so when you realize that Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, co-wrote it, so there’s some genuine affection behind it.
It’s a perfectly inoffensive movie, and if you’re as big a fan of Otm Shank as I am, you can at least rest assured that he ends 2022 in a way that basically renders the year as a mulligan rather than a sign of some kind of career downturn. If you’re interested, you probably won’t be disappointed. Still, if given the choice, I’d take Ove over Otto every time.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are Americanized remakes better than normal ones? Can you imagine how much worse this movie might have been if they cast Chet instead of Truman? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on January 6, 2023.