Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review: ‘A Man Called Otto’ is Wholesome, but Little Else

Director: Marc Forster

Writer: David Magee

Stars: Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Truman Hanks

Synopsis: Otto is a grump who’s given up on life following the loss of his wife and wants to end it all. When a young family moves in nearby, he meets his match in quick-witted Marisol, leading to a friendship that will turn his world around.

Some movies come along, and defy deep description. A Man Called Otto, based on the best seller “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Bachman, is one such film. Honestly, it’s nice, and it pains me to write a review that is less than glowing. It seems to not aspire to be much more than a vehicle for Tom Hanks to move from grumpy to, well, nice, something we already associate with America’s Dad. Even if you have not read the excellent source material, there are no great surprises contained within.

The story focuses on Otto (Hanks), a grumpy, suicidal man who has recently lost his wife and is dealing with varied annoyances, including new neighbors and a realty group trying to swoop in and take his and his neighbor’s properties from under him. Forster is an interesting director, but here he seems uninspired and content to let Hanks carry the weight, without a great deal of cinematic assistance. He centers most of his work on flashbacks featuring young Otto (Truman Hanks) and his soon to be wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller).

Alright, so here’s the elephant in the room. Truman Hanks, Tom’s son, struggles a bit here. Luckily, he is playing a character that tends to not emote and is obviously socially awkward. But even with these limitations, he is just not an engaging actor. This is especially true when paired with Keller, who, with limited screentime, is instantly memorable, and like Otto, we just want a little more time with her. A moment of accidental violence involving Sonya is really the only attempt at cinematic movement from Forster, and even this is unimaginative and bland. We, of course, feel the pain, of the after effects of this, but the moment is more than a bit muddled.

But I told you it was nice, so it’s not all bad. The aforementioned neighboring family, headed by Marisol (Mariana Treviño), along with her husband and two (soon to be three) children truly save the movie. At her introduction, she is certainly a lot to handle, but she grows on you, and on Otto, to everyone’s advantage. Marisol is truly the only person willing to both stand up to him and care about him. Her consistent positivity sometimes strains credulity, but the script does a lovely job at pushing her and Otto together in ways that eventually make sense. I won’t tell you what happens, but trust me, you already know.

Another thing that it does very well is a balancing of difficult tones. Some of this is due to the elder Hanks’ easy manner of performance, some is the source material, but you do have to give credit to the script, penned by David Magee. After all, this is a heartwarming comedy about a man who desperately wants to die so he can be close to his wife, who has passed.  Hilarious, right? And yet, somehow these disparate tones find a way to work together. A Man Called Otto is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes heartwarming, but never surprising. 

It does make me wonder how this film would come off with a few changes. As great as Tom Hanks is, in general we know he is a nice guy, so we are just waiting for him to break and become exactly that. And lord, if we had an actual actor playing the young version, instead of paying the nepotism price, simply because, for good reason, Truman bears a passing resemblance to Tom. 

At its heart, A Man Called Otto is really a film about community, and how important it is to connect. It is really hard to hate on that.  It’s a good message. It’s, again, nice. But it’s definitely not memorable. Many other films have done this better. A Man Called Otto is not a waste of time by any stretch, but it also does not demand your attention in any strong measure. Traveling with this character in the framework of a novel, being connected to his emotions and thoughts is a better fit. Here, though, it all feels a bit like a big grumpy act, just waiting to be corrected.

Grade – C

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