We all have a soft spot for a grumpy but well-meaning old man. And A Man Called Otto will introduce you to the grumpiest (but secretly big-hearted) guy around. The new film from Sony Pictures stars Tom Hanks, and adapts a bestselling novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman.
Darkly funny and endlessly charming, A Man Called Otto follows Hanks as the curmudgeonly title character. Otto’s got a very particular way of viewing the world, and his stubbornness often sets him at odds with others. (When we’re introduced to the character, he gets into an argument with a cashier over a 33 cent overcharge; it’s not about the 33 cents, but the principle of being charged for 6 feet of rope when he only bought 5.)
Soon, you’ll realize that Otto is on a dark path – ready to end his life to be reunited with his late wife. But somehow, things keep getting in the way of his plans. Sometimes it’s Otto’s own principles, and sometimes it’s his new neighbor, Marisol (Mariana Treviño).
A faithful adaptation of the book?
A Man Called Ove is one of my favorite novels; I think Backman’s ability to create beautifully relatable, realistic, and compelling characters is virtually unmatched. His books always make me laugh and cry, and this film did the same.
Normally, I’m not really a fan of “Americanizing” existing stories. But I have to say A Man Called Otto did this extremely well. There was clearly great care taken to not just scrap the original story completely, but to find the American equivalents of what Backman set up in his novel. For instance, Otto’s endearing neighbor is Latina instead of Middle Eastern in this adaptation – important since the character represents the ethnic background of the biggest immigrant population to the setting country; however, her personality remains the same in the film as it is in the original book. Similarly, Otto’s ongoing feud with his friend/neighbor over cars gets a simple but fun update with American brands.
I do think the film struggles sometimes to preserve the exact tone of the novel, swinging a bit too sweet and losing some of its darkly funny edge. (More on that later.) But overall, if you’re a fan of the original novel like I am, I think you’ll find this adaptation enjoyable.
It’s not exactly a revelation to say Tom Hanks is a good actor, so I won’t belabor the point too much. He definitely slips in easily to the “loveable grump” role, and seems to delight in getting to play into Otto’s duality.
Hanks also has a great dynamic with Treviño, who absolutely shines as Marisol. Though Hanks plays the title character, much of A Man Called Otto really rests on Treviño’s shoulders. Her character has to be meddlesome enough to constantly involve herself in Otto’s life, while being kind and loving and sweet enough that you want her to keep doing it, while also being hard-headed and stubborn enough to go toe-to-toe with the old grump himself. She’s both Otto’s foil and his catalyst to change; if she can’t pull it off, the story crashes and burns.
Luckily, Treviño truly does it all as Marisol. She makes you root for her from the start, and you only come to love her more as the film progresses. Am I biased because she reminds me of neighbors I had growing up? Maybe. But I also think we’d all be pretty lucky to have a Marisol living next door to us.
I will say that as much as I love Hanks, casting him in this role makes “revealing” Otto’s inner warmth and kindness a bit of a foregone conclusion. Despite Otto’s prickly nature kicking things off, I don’t know that any viewers will genuinely feel like this is a bad guy once they see Hanks. That kind of whittles down the potential of the character arc. For some, this may make the overall story feel less impactful.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the flashback sequences. They went on too long and dipped a bit into melodrama, aiming for emotional swings that felt too abrupt and extreme to be earned. The flashbacks are one of the big contributors to the movie’s somewhat uneven tone, which sometimes struggles to swing from darkly comedic to overly-sentimental.
Still, Ove (and now Otto) holds a special place in my heart. A Man Called Otto isn’t a perfect film, but it’s one with a message I think is important and ever-more timely: we all need other people, and we don’t have to be alone.
A Man Called Otto arrives in select theaters December 30, followed by a wide release January 13.