REASON: A widower named Otto (Tom Hanks) becomes enmeshed in the lives of his needy neighbors, much to his (initial) dismay.
REVIEW: Early in A man named Otto, there is a scene where Tom Hanks, as the cruel Otto, visits a hardware store to buy some rope. He plans to go home and hang himself, but when he reaches the money, he has a long argument about how they are charging him for more rope than he needs. This scene is depicted as “crazy” and it pretty much sums up all the problems I have with the movie. In it, Tom Hanks’ character is so depressed that we’re supposed to believe that when he gets home with this rope, he’s going to kill himself. As Marc Forster directs this scene and Hanks performs it, this sequence feels like something out of a sitcom, and you never think for a second that Otto is so depressed that suicide is a legitimate option for him.
Given that A man named Otto is a remake of a much admired Swedish film, A man called Ove, which was based on a novel, one can reasonably assume that the story has been done better elsewhere. There’s no mistaking the source material, although the story has probably lost something in the change of scenery from Sweden to North America. Here, Hanks plays the humble Otto, who has been in a funk ever since his beloved wife died of cancer. He has been forced to retire from his job and with empty days of sitting at home in front of him without his wife, he decides to end things. But as he prepares to carry out the deed, he is interrupted by his new neighbor, Marisol (Mariana Treviño). Unable to drive and often needing help with her children, the pregnant woman usually has little things she needs Otto’s help with, much to his initial dismay. There is also a cute cat who won’t leave him alone and quickly warns the old man’s heart.
Hanks, for his part, seems to enjoy playing grumpy Otto, but given how beloved he is, the role feels like a put-on. Hanks has this twinkle in his eye that makes Otto a lovable old guy, whereas perhaps a less beloved actor might have been better able to convey some pathos (I kept thinking Bryan Cranston would have been excellent). It is difficult because A man named Otto is the kind of film that will divide an audience. It lives and dies by Hanks’ performance, and if you find yourself moved by him in it, you’ll love the film. If, like me, you find the performance unconvincing, then the film becomes a bit of a sentimental ordeal.
The film also contains a lot of flashbacks depicting Otto’s life with his wife. In his younger years, he is played by Hanks’ son Truman, with his wife, Sonya, played by Rachel Keller. Although this is meant to evoke how profound Otto’s loss was, Sonya never comes across as a full-fledged character, but comes off as impossibly saintly. She and Otto seem like a mismatched couple, and their romance feels thin, right down to the grand set piece scored by Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” (though film buffs will remember that the song was used similarly in the underrated She’s having a baby). Although they are shown to have faced adversity in recent years, all of this is left off-screen, with Otto only remembering the early days, to the point that when Sonya appears to him late in the film, we see her only ever. as a young woman.
Finally, A man named Otto is the kind of movie some people will love and some will reject. It struck a sour note for me right from the start, making it a difficult film to surrender to. It’s sentimental in a forced way and lacks the cynical bite many have said the original has, with any rough edges sanded off en route to affordable, big-budget studio fare. How you react to A man named Otto depends entirely on whether you can keep up with Hanks’ performance, and for the second time this year (after his over-the-top Colonel Parker marred the otherwise excellent Elvis), I found myself unconvinced by the mighty Tom.