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Review | ‘A Man Called Otto’: Remake of Swedish film adds heart, loses soul

Review | ‘A Man Called Otto’: Remake of Swedish film adds heart, loses soul


(2.5 stars)

As the title character in “A Man Called Otto,” Tom Hanks plays a cantankerous widower with an affinity for home repair. When it comes to this tear-jerker’s own makeover — it’s based on Hannes Holm’s 2016 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove,” inspired by Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel — some sanded-off edges threaten to throw the project out of whack. But in the end, they don’t quite compromise a sturdy foundation.

Working together for the first time since 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee have reimagined Holm’s vision by scaling back the cynicism, softening the central character’s tragic backstory and dulling the black comedy. Yet it’s Hanks’s performance that sets this Hollywood remake apart from the original. As inhabited by Rolf Lassgard, the character of Ove was abrasive, obtuse and pragmatic to a fault. Hanks’s Otto is a more conventional creation: the lovable curmudgeon harboring a heart of gold. Even if “A Man Called Otto” loses some of its soul in translation, Hanks’s innate warmth adds heart to this affecting depiction of longing for the past and finding purpose in the present.

In the process, a bleak dramedy has turned into a cozy crowd-pleaser. There’s nothing wrong with that, though the story’s darker elements don’t always jell with the frothier approach. A sexagenarian who revels in routine, Otto wakes up at 6:29 a.m. — seconds before his alarm is set to go off — and makes the rounds in his gated Pittsburgh cul-de-sac. Among his activities: shooing away a stray cat, scolding the UPS driver for passing through without a permit and growling “idiots” under his breath at his exceedingly friendly neighbors.

It’s all grumpy antics until Otto arrives at work, where he’s being forced out of his longtime factory job amid a corporate merger. After bailing early on his retirement party and heading home, he methodically cancels the electricity, vacuums the carpet, takes out the trash, ties a noose around his neck and tries to hang himself.

Such a grave development, while tonally apt in “Ove,” jars in the more broadly comedic “Otto.” But the film is less interested in Otto’s failed suicide attempt than the interruption that helps foil it: new neighbors in the form of pregnant mom Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her easygoing husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their two young daughters. Predictably, Otto bonds with the dysfunctional clan amid various diversions that reconnect him to his community. Along the way, he spars with a smarmy real estate agent (Mike Birbiglia), gets to know the transgender delivery boy (Mack Bayda) and reconnects with an elderly couple (Juanita Jennings and Peter Lawson Jones) at risk of losing their home. From time to time, he sweetly shares these tales over his late wife’s gravestone.

“Otto” is most at home in that vividly realized middle-class neighborhood, as composer Thomas Newman’s plucky score hums along, the amiable characters trade acts of kindness and Treviño’s relentlessly positive Marisol breaks through to Otto’s walled-off emotions. Extensive flashbacks showing the courtship between a younger Otto (Hanks’s son Truman Hanks) and his wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller), as well as the hardships that embittered him, are less successful. Where “Ove” portrayed its protagonist as socially inept from childhood, the young version of Otto is a charmer so distant from the irritable old man he becomes that it strains credulity. The decision to skip over his parents’ deaths, depicted so devastatingly in the earlier film, further undermines the source material.

That said, Forster’s film deserves to be judged on its own terms. As cloying as this interpretation may be, there’s something soothing about its wholehearted vision of the “found” family and its virtues. Throw in an actor as likable as Hanks — back to form after uneven performances in “Elvis” and “Pinocchio” — and even the curmudgeons should be won over. Sure, it’s formulaic. And there will be no Oscar for this grouch. But as Otto might say, there’s nothing wrong with routine.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material involving suicide attempts, and strong language. 126 minutes.

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