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In Marc Forster’s genial, earnest yet unremarkable dramedy “A Man Called Otto,” the titular character Otto can’t pick his daily battles even if his life depended on it. Living in an unfussy suburban neighborhood of identical row houses somewhere in the Midwest, the aging man gets easily annoyed by every little misstep of a stranger. And his protests are so pronounced that they even rival Larry David’s in an average episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Portrayed by the beloved Tom Hanks in an indistinct performance that splits the difference between quirky and grounded, Otto is often right about his grievances, to his credit. Why should he pay for six feet of rope and waste a few extra cents, for instance, when he bought just a little over five? Why shouldn’t he warn inconsiderate drivers who often block garage doors or entitled neighbors who can’t as much as remember to close a gate and respect basic rules about trash disposal? Or pick up a fuss when the soulless real estate guys from the fictional and hilariously named “Dye & Merica” show up to sabotage the community’s peace?
Then again, not everything is as awful as Otto makes them out to be. And he could perhaps afford to have some manners himself, especially when a new, very pregnant neighbor drops by with a bowl of home-cooked meal as a courtesy.
If you’ve already seen 2015’s Oscar-nominated Swedish hit “A Man Called Ove” by Hannes Holm, a film that is not any better or worse than this middle-of-the-road American remake (yes, not all originals are automatically superior), you’ll know that Otto hasn’t always been this insufferable. In small doses of syrupy and visually overworked flashbacks, Forster and agile screenwriter David Magee show us that he was socially awkward even from his young days, but at least nice and approachable. With a squarely unstylish side-part haircut that aptly gives out a “nice but unworldly guy” vibe, young Otto (played by the star’s own son, Truman Hanks) had an interest in engineering, in figuring out how things work. His life apparently changed when he accidentally met the dreamy Sonya (Rachel Keller), who later on became his wife and passed away recently.
As was the case in “Ove,” Otto can’t wait to join his wife on the other side, but his frequent suicide attempts get interrupted in episodes that are sometimes awkwardly funny, and other times, just plain awkward. The chief interrupters of our get-off-my-lawn guy are the abovementioned new neighbors: the happily married-with-kids couple Marisol (a bubbly and scene-stealing Mariana Treviño, the absolute best thing about the film) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Ruflo), who often ask little favors from the grumpy Otto. There are also others in the neighborhood, like a kindly transgender teenager Malcolm (Mack Bayda) thrown out of his house by his dad, the fitness-obsessed Jimmy (Cameron Britton), Otto’s old friend Rueben (Peter Lawson Jones), and his wife Anita (Juanita Jennings), who are no longer on cordial terms with Otto. And let’s not forget a stray cat that no one seems to know what to do with for a while.
The mystery is that none of the supporting personalities in this story can take a hint about Otto, at least not well into the film’s second act. Instead, all the characters collectively treat Otto with patience and acceptance, as if he isn’t being willfully rude to them every chance he gets. For example, it’s anyone’s guess why Otto’s work colleagues bother to throw him a retirement party when it will surely go unappreciated or why Marisol continuously insists on trying to bring out the good side of him when Otto offensively shuts down every one of her genuine attempts.
Still, the story manages to land some charms when Otto finally lets his guard down and starts making all the expected amends, while suffering a rare heart condition on the side. First, he becomes a local hero when he unwittingly saves someone’s life in front of a group of unhelpful people too preoccupied with their phones. Later on, he racks up additional goodwill when he takes Malcolm in and builds a slow yet steady friendship with Marisol, a rewarding storyline in an otherwise predictable tale.
But the biggest win of Forster’s adaptation is its worthwhile message about the small wins of everyday people who operate as a functioning and harmonious community against the evils of faceless corporations. “A Man Called Otto” isn’t exactly as philosophical as “About Schmidt” or as socially conscious as “I, Daniel Blake,” two films that occasionally hit similar notes. But it’s nevertheless a wholesome crowd-pleaser for your next family gathering.
In limited release now, wide on January 13th.
Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to RogerEbert.com, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.
Tom Hanks as Otto Anderson
Mariana Treviño as Marisol
Kailey Hyman as Barb
Elle Chapman as Sarah
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