REVIEW: A Man Called Otto (dir. Marc Forster)

Certificate: 15 (suicide theme). Running Time: 126 mins. UK Distributor: Sony

WHO’S IN IT?

Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Rachel Keller, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cameron Britton, Mike Birbiglia, Juanita Jennings, Peter Lawson Jones, Truman Hanks

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Marc Forster (director), David Magee (writer), Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Fredrik Wikström, Rita Wilson (producers), Thomas Newman (composer), Matthias Koenigswieser (cinematographer), Matt Chessé (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A grumpy widower (Hanks) finds his life rudely interrupted by the arrival of new neighbours…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON A MAN CALLED OTTO?

After years of being known as the Nicest Movie Star in Hollywood©, Tom Hanks seems to have begun a slight career trajectory by taking on roles that are as far removed from that persona as possible – but even then, he still can’t shake off his natural likeability. Last year, for example, his divisive portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis may have been a rare villain turn for the actor, but he was still compelling enough to keep you interested in this slimier-than-usual character, and now something similar has occurred with A Man Called Otto, which sees Hanks go full Karen mode in all the most unimaginable ways, and yet he’s still someone that you just want to give the biggest hug to.

Such is the power of Tom Hanks’ immortal likeability, apparently. What’s more, the movie itself is decent enough to warrant this kind of charm, even when it threatens to become too sentimental and cloying for its own good.

An American adaptation of both the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and its Oscar-nominated previous book-to-screen version, A Man Called Otto follows – who else? – a man called Otto (Hanks), a retired fellow whose grumpy and anti-social mannerisms are constantly at odds with his friendlier neighbours, especially as he scolds everyone from delivery drivers to parked visitors for not following the rules. His plan isn’t to stick around for much longer, though: lonely ever since the passing of his wife Sonya (portrayed in flashbacks by Rachel Keller, with younger Otto being played by Hanks’ own son Truman), Otto seeks to end his own life – but every time he’s about to do the deed, he’s interrupted by his lively new neighbours, the heavily pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who slowly but surely give him more and more reasons to keep living.

For a supposedly light-hearted romp about an old codger with a heart of gold, it’s surprising how dark this film can get with its themes about suicide. Granted, I’ve neither read the original book nor seen the previous adaptation, so I have no idea if this version is dead-on with this flip-flopping tone, but it is still pretty jarring when you’ll have comedic scenes of Hanks yelling at store clerks to speak to their manager, followed almost immediately by a somewhat sombre sequence where he’s fitting a noose into the ceiling of his house. For a while, David Magee’s script goes back and forth from indulging in this pitch-black humour about a man constantly having his suicide bids being interrupted, to being an all-around crowd-pleaser that is neatly designed to leave you with warm and fuzzy feelings at all times, which sometimes confuses the overall tone. Are we meant to feel uncomfortable, or deeply touched? You’re never quite sure what to feel, and for a while neither does the movie itself.

However, A Man Called Otto does eventually manage to find an even enough tonal balance, and proceeds with being the kind of easy-viewing movie where you can clearly identify its heart. While Hanks’ Otto is often made up of a lot of very stereotypical “grumpy old man” mannerisms – to a point where you could almost see him being a safer and slightly friendlier version of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino – the actor does manage to bring a level of humanity to a character that could easily have been two-dimensional without Hanks’ input. Otto, along with many of the other supporting players in this movie, has a surprising sweetness and likeability to his nature, particularly when he goes out of his way to help one of his neighbours or even a stray cat that he eventually adopts, while still feeling like it isn’t out of character. Marc Forster’s steady direction allows for enough heartfelt moments with everyone that you do manage to care about them whenever they’re under some sort of threat, and of course Hanks is such a compelling actor that he can easily carry an uplifting (of sorts) movie like this in his sleep.

Often, though, the film tends to fall victim to its own supply of syrupy goodness, which even for anyone going into this without a hint of cynicism may be a bit too much to bear. You can tell exactly which moments that have been designed specifically for audience members to laugh, cry, cheer or even applaud, and they’re mostly delivered with about as much black-and-white sentimentalism as you’d expect, leaving them to feel more manipulative than genuine. There are also times when the film will pause everything to go into extended flashbacks with young Otto and his wife, and there’s something about the way that they’re structured, written, and even acted that make them feel as though you’re watching a cookie-cutter Nicholas Sparks knock-off, which are the moments when you can practically sense your heartstrings being forcefully tugged the most. As you’re hearing all of the cheesy romantic dialogue and corny kissing scenes (this is the kind of movie where the main couple will kiss in the middle of a restaurant, and everyone around them starts applauding with approval), you’re almost wishing for the movie to cut back to the older Tom Hanks trying to off himself, because at least there’ll be something more interesting going on.

While it isn’t particularly great, and could certainly do with some tidying up to make it more tonally consistent and less manipulative in the emotional department, A Man Called Otto is the kind of movie that’s easy for anyone to like just enough, and should give you everything that you want in a simple, unchallenging crowd-pleaser such as this. It’s far from the worst example of overly sentimental drama, but at the same time you wish that there was a bit more to it that would help it really stand out – and sadly, scenes of Tom Hanks threatening to beat up a hospital clown aren’t quite enough to do the trick.

SO, TO SUM UP…

A Man Called Otto is a simple crowd-pleaser that’s easy enough for most people to like, not least of all because of a slightly against-type lead turn by Tom Hanks, but it could have had a tighter grip on its darker themes of suicide which unravel the lighter tone, and its overly sentimental nature can sometimes feel more manipulative than genuine.

A Man Called Otto is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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