“Is Tom Hanks the problem?” I wondered as I watched, mystified by A Man Called Otto. But as this feel-good dramedy about an old grouch with a heart of gold unfurled before me, it became clear Hanks is not the problem. He’s a symptom of the saccharine disease that makes this adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s darkly comic Swedish novel A Man Called Ove a fluffy nothing. 

Finding Neverland director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee reunited for A Man Called Otto, which stars Hanks as a bitter widower who — once forced into retirement — is determined to die by suicide. If only all the idiots of his neighborhood would stop interrupting him! This might sound like a shockingly dark premise for one of America’s most beloved leading men, but the casting of Hanks is itself a warning sign of the insufferable softening of Ove‘s sharp edges. Forster and Magee have hacked away at Blackman’s novel, chiseling out much of Otto/Ove’s tragic backstory, and with it much of the grimly funny observations of the book’s omniscient narrator.

How is A Man Called Otto different from A Man Called Ove?


Credit: Sony

Gone are the hard knocks childhood, the crushing death of the father he idolized, and the fiery loss of their home. And with them, gone too is much of the explanation for why our protagonist is such a sour curmudgeon, the kind of guy who constantly is on the alert for thieves or tricksters. He is a man scarred (literally and psychologically) by trauma, which has given him a tough exterior, not easy to broach. So, in the book, when the cracks in this coldness begin to appear with a kind act here or a warm word there, it feels like the sun shining through on a winter day. It feels like hope and salvation made tangible. Cutting not only much of Ove’s tragedies from the story but also those of his neighbors means the American movie adaptation refuses to get properly dark. And without that depth, the character arc for Otto is infuriatingly shallow. 

In flashbacks, Forster ushers us into Otto’s youthful love with his wife Sonya, who loved books and was the light of his life. But without establishing the darkness that proceeded their love, Sonya becomes a hasty pastiche of pleasant femininity, all smiles and warmth and gentle flirtations. Likewise, the truncating of a backstory between Otto and his elderly neighbors kills the payoff of setups about vehicular rivalries and even the film’s heartwarming climax. Without establishing where these people have been, how are we to appreciate how far they’ve come?! 

Hanks has played a bastard here (A League of Their Own) or there (Elvis), but his reputation as America’s Dad telegraphs the ending of the movie before it even begins. Otto might growl at retail employees, bark at a UPS driver, and berate a chirpy pet owner for her dog’s unruly urine. But because we know it’s Tom Hanks, we trust he’ll never do anything truly horrid. And he won’t, which is our loss. The adapted screenplay coddles us, adding righteous motivations to some of Ove’s most shocking behavior from the book. Ove’s pettiness was part of what made the book so wickedly fun, because sometimes you do really want to punch a clown right in the nose, even if it is unkind. Or at the very least, you want Ove to do it for you! This sense of lip-biting humor is lost, leaving A Man Called Otto pleasant but not funny. 

A Man Called Otto’s humor and heart was lost in translation.


Credit: Sony

Moments that meant a lot in the novel — like local children giving the hero a loving nickname — are undermined in the movie by happening almost immediately. Nothing feels earned when Hanks is threatening to smile at the start of Act Two. Worse yet, the emotionally shut-down Ove is given a lazy screenwriting makeover. To preserve some of Backman’s terrific prose from the narration, Otto is no longer the stern silent type, but instead he’s a chatterbox eager to overshare given the least opportunity. Nothing develops in A Man Called Otto. It’s basically call-and-response, as if the healing power of community happens overnight or the soul-savaging weight of grief can be shed as easily as a winter coat. Frankly, A Man Called Otto is insulting. 

Forster has no faith that his audience can appreciate the story of a true bastard who rediscovers a reason to live. Perhaps he has no faith that American audiences might endure the full heartbreak of Ove’s youth to earn the radiance of his senior revival. In any case, Magee’s script whittles down Ove’s edges to make him less a bastard and more of a grump. Stakes are lowered. Side stories are shaved off for time or to keep things light, but in any case, it kills the dimension of the original story. Even Otto’s favorite sparring partner — a pregnant, nosy immigrant (a kinetic Mariana Treviño) who relentlessly pounds on the walls he’s put up (along with his front door) — is given a cheery makeover, smoothing her brusqueness with sugary smiles galore. 

Imagine if the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas but just groused around the holiday market. Or what if Scrooge didn’t get poetical about his detestation of the poor? Would their changes of heart have hit as hard? Would their stories have even merited the telling? Perhaps to Forster. 

Sadly, this feel-good movie falls flat because it never allows us to feel that bad. Gestures at grief and regret are not enough to make the emotions hit us at our core. Smothering the story of a suicidal man in tirelessly chipper sidekicks feels more jarring than complex, regarding his troubles as something with a quick fix. And Hanks in the lead role, though committed, cannot escape his generations-long persona to be a believable son of a bitch. Without such saltiness, which made A Man Called Ove exhilarating, A Man Called Otto feels infuriatingly inert and frankly idiotic.

A Man Called Otto opens in select theaters on Dec. 30 and goes wide Jan. 13. 

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