Movie Review: Sentiment on Otto-pilot — “A Man Called Otto”

Every neighborhood has one, that perpetually prickly “You kids get off my lawn!” martinet. He lives, in his mind, in an ordered universe. And all the “idiots” around him, at work, at home and in life, are screwing that up.

“Codgers” is our most affectionate name for them.

Tom Hanks cannot help but play the soft side of just such a codger in “A Man Called Otto,” a maudlin, drawn-out to the point of “endless” remake of an Oscar-nominated international hit from Sweden a few years back.

Director Marc Forster eschews action (“World War Z”) for his “Kite Runner/Finding Neverland” sentimental side in a movie that is affecting, here and there, and resonates because sad, embittered loneliness is a universal curse of old age. As I pointed out in my review of the Swedish film, “A Man Called Ove, “the bitter have their reasons.”

But the previous film and the novel it is based on work in ways this sunnier, sappier Hollywood one simply can’t. The metaphor of a Swedish film about a lonely, suicidal widower who finds renewed purpose in the inept-at-home-ownership immigrants who move in across the street may translate. It’s the film’s suicide attempts that don’t land as dark comedy laughs this time.

The Swedes have a lot more experience with that sort of thing.

Otto is an exacting 60something who expects everybody to follow the rules, especially in the townhouse subdivision he’s lived much of his life. “Idiots” who can’t properly sort their recycling, won’t clean up after their dogs, who fling unwanted ad circulars on every lawn and treat this gated, parking-by-permit-only oasis the way people do these days — as if “rules” are for “other” people — get an earful from Otto.

We see him storm out of his retirement “send off” at the steel mill (Pittsburgh and Eastern Ohio were filming locations) in a huff and demand to “see the manager” at his local big box hardware store when they won’t sell him five feet of rope as “we sell it by the yard.”

The rope and the metal shackle he bought are needed at home. Otto testily shuts off his phone service and his electricity, bickers with the gas company, fetches his drill and mounts a hook on the ceiling of his living room. That’s where five feet of rope will become a noose.

He puts on his best suit, and…

As efficient and competent as he is about everything else, we’d expect this to go off without much of a hitch. But then these “idiots” who can’t back a U-Haul trailer into a parking space across the street distract him. And this kind of adult incompetence he cannot tolerate.

Marisol (Mariana Treviño) is pregnant, animated and Hispanic, chattering directions at hapless Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Before he knows it, Otto is intervening in their sloppy parking job. And thanks to everything else these new renters don’t know how to do, or have the tools to do, Otto is drawn into their lives.

Marisol’s “Are you always this unfriendly?” falls on deaf ears. But her proffered Tupperware tubs of assorted Central and South American delicacies (she grew up all over) might wear him down. His longtime neighbors might still get the curt growls, and the developers intent on buying out this subdivision his rage.

Bubbly, talks-with-her-mouth-and-hands Marisol is harder to resist. Even when it comes to the stray cat that shows up. Not that Otto has been completely distracted from his main objective — ending this misery of a life.

The assorted Hollywood “improvements” to the Swedish film are worth noting. Otto’s thoughts of stepping in front of a train aren’t just interrupted when an even older man falls in front of one, and must be saved. Here, that’s comical because the narcissists of our “attention economy” are quick to start cell-phone recording (and “narrating/hosting”) this tragedy as it unfolds rather than averting it and helping. Otto’s heroism puts him on the radar of a “social media journalist,” just another thing to earn his ire.

Hollywood’s tendency to over-explain the “why” of a character shows itself in the much more detailed and longer flashbacks that tell us of the wife and the life Otto lost when his beloved Sonya died. Truman Hanks plays young Otto, and Rachel Keller is the face of beauty, sweetness and light who came into Otto’s life.

“My life was black and white before I met Sonya.”

Hanks’ baggage as an actor doesn’t overwhelm his attempts at making Otto unlikable and angry before this late life intervention kicks in. He manages meanness without effort, and of course can make any character touching and sympathetic. But the Big Screen’s “Mister Rogers,” the embodiment of decency and compassion and sweetness who could make even a hit man (“Road to Perdition”) fatherly and almost cuddly, can’t help but give us an Otto without an edge.

Of course the grousing grinch you just met is the first person you think of to ask babysit your two little girls. No, he’s not going to judge the young bicycling circular delivery kid because he’s transgender, despite his age, conservative disposition and general misanthropy. Because he’s Tom Hanks!

I dare say the screenwriter knew better than to even try to say, make Otto a Clint-in-“Gran Torino” racist or homophobe or xenophobe. They let Hanks play “dour” and that’s that.

Writer David Magee and Forster and Treviño turn Marisol into a broad, “Dios mio” Latina stereotype — full of life, likable, loveable, but in all the trite ways. Other characters are barely sketched in, because they had to make room for those much longer flashbacks.

This film reflects some of the same droll, sober merits of such “interrupted suicide” stories, “Before I Disappear” being the best of that genre. Like “Ove,” “Otto” dares to venture the suggestion that maybe the suicidal elderly have a point.

And it’s not like not the memory of the Swedish film is fresh enough to make “Otto” simply suffer in comparison. Forster & Co. make “Otto” sodden, slow and occasionally grating all on their own.

But if you have any recollection of the original film at all, it’s too easy to note that scene by scene, character by character and plot element by plot element, they remade it slightly less funny and somewhat less touching in most every regard.

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving suicide attempts, and language.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Juanita Jennings, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Truman Hanks and Rachel Keller.

Credits: Directed by Marc Forster, scripted by David Magee, based on the novel Fredrik Backman and the Swedish film by Hannes Holm. A Sony/Columbia release.

Running time: 2:06

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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