Despite recent reports to the contrary (thank you, Henry Winkler), Tom Hanks will always be known as the nicest guy in Hollywood. But is Tom Hanks such a “nice guy” that he can only play against type in the most obvious, literal way? A murderous villain is too far a stretch; a double-crossing commander is perhaps not juicy enough. No, when Tom Hanks wants to really throw a sour wrench onto his all-American good-guy bread and butter, he has to play a grumpy old man. Not just any grumpy old man: an embittered, persnickety, widower with a secret heart of gold. The question isn’t whether he pulls it off well enough, but if he should have tried in the first place.
Adding to the pile of ham-fisted and unnecessary American remakes of successful international films, “A Man Called Otto” squeezes every drop of spontaneity and charm out of its generally well-liked source material. A remake of the 2016 Swedish comedy “A Man Called Ove,” based on Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestseller, “A Man Called Otto” Americanizes the story of a grumpy old man healed by a boisterous immigrant family next door. While “Otto” may reach fresh audiences who’d otherwise balk at subtitles, this sluggish rendition is unlikely to inspire anyone to seek out the original.
The film opens with Otto (Hanks) going about his morning routine: checking the parking permits and spacing on all of the cars in his little housing complex, re-sorting the recyclables with his own personal trash picker, and gingerly laying fresh flowers at his wife’s gravestone. Arriving on the factory floor, he is unpleasantly surprised by a mini-retirement party, glancing disdainfully at his co-workers who are a little too happy to slice into a cake adorned with his face. When he returns to his cookie-cutter home on a gated cul-de-sac, he calls off the gas and electricity and drills a hole in the ceiling to secure a makeshift noose.
However, he’s distracted from his grim task by a shoddy parking job outside his window. Unable to resist his scolding urges, he walks right into the cheerful chaos of the young family moving in across the street. There’s peppy Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her agreeable husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their two sweet daughters. After this initial introduction, a relationship starts to grow through a series of rocky neighborly interactions. To show her gratitude, Marisol drops off a warm home-cooked meal — one that smells good enough to keep Otto on Earth for at least another day. She tries valiantly to peer past his shoulder into the darkened living room, but she can’t quite place why the curt old man is acting so cagey.
Treviño is engaging and charismatic as the gregarious Marisol, playing off Otto’s gruffness with an endless stream of nonsequiturs and conversational gymnastics. Though Treviño makes the most of a funny, chatty role, she is hemmed by the limits of tired white storytelling conventions. She fills in the edges of Marisol’s clichés valiantly, but the script and direction offer only a simplistic portrayal of a brash Latina — heavily accented and fast-talking.
Otto and Marisol’s friendship blossoms over driving lessons, which he takes very seriously as a former auto man. It’s on these solo excursions that Otto eventually opens up about his late wife, why they never had kids, and why he’s estranged from his oldest friend in the neighborhood. As she sizes him up with a listening ear, Marisol’s face reveals a steadfast determination to burrow into Otto’s closed-off heart.
Directed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”) from a screenplay by David Magee, “A Man Called Otto” is an unsurprising Hollywood makeover of a sweet and heartwarming story. Under Forster’s commercial guidance, the dark comedy elements that the Swedes so excel at fall flat, and Hanks’ hangdog miserliness feels more mopey than funny. The film is similarly Americanized with a cloying sentimentality, which milks Otto’s heart condition and childless backstory for a tearful ending. There are far too many stilted flashbacks to Otto’s younger life, no doubt to beef up the role for Truman Hanks, the one Hanks son you likely haven’t heard of.
Much of the charm of the original is lost in translation with “A Man Called Otto,” leaving in its place an overstuffed vehicle for Hanks to play at his grouchy alter ego. It would be far more fun to see him take a real swing out of his comfort zone, but the world might not be ready for such a risk from America’s favorite nice guy.
Sony Pictures will release “A Man Called Otto” in select theaters on December 30.