A Man Called Otto is Uneven and Lacks Focus
A Man Called Otto film review
Marc Forster has made quite the career for himself. His name will be forever attached to a project that earned Oscar glory, Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry won the Best Actress statuette. He translated a few gargantuan blockbusters from script to screen: Quantum of Solace, World War Z. He’s also brought to life some smaller curiosities, such as Stranger Than Fiction and Christopher Robin. It’s a nice filmography on paper, yet his name is rarely if ever, brought up in the conversation of directors who have left a serious mark on movies over the past twenty years. Perhaps it’s because there is often an element or two holding his films back from being truly great. For his latest endeavour, he tries his hand with A Man Called Otto, an English language remake of a praised Swedish picture.
A Man Called Otto’s origin is, in fact, a novel written by Fredrik Backman in 2012. A best-seller, it didn’t take long before cinema came calling for the rights to produce a version of A Man Called Ove for the silver screen. Those duties were handled by filmmaker Hannes Holm in 2015. As is often the case, when a book sells well and a foreign language picture earns plaudits, Hollywood does what it does best (depending on whom one asks): birth a remake.
The new iteration stars Tom Hanks as the titular Otto Anderson, a man who lives in and manages a small neighbourhood whose corporate overseers are making life hard on him and some of its longstanding residents. New building plans, more money to make, new clients to satisfy, surely the reader gets the gist. As for Otto, he isn’t the most pleasant man to be around. Still grieving the loss of his wife (Rachel Keller in flashbacks), bitterness has nestled into this persona, with no sign of ever leaving. The new neighbours across the street, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), are both outstandingly outspoken and friendly, too things that don’t vibe in the slightest with crusty old Otto.
Otto is in such dire emotional and psychological straights that, early in the picture, he plans to take his life. But life, ironically, gets in the way in the form of help needed by the new residents as they settle in and thus starts a slow but inexorable journey through which Otto learns to be a member of a community again.
Kill The Author’s Darlings
It’s a perfectly reasonable setup. Full disclosure: the author has neither watched the Swedish picture nor read the novel on which it is based. That said, there are some telltale signs that somewhere in the translation process, key decisions were made that might have benefitted from additional sober thought. To be clear, that argument isn’t necessarily a reflection of how poorly or superbly Hollywood has remade a Swedish production (again, we haven’t seen the original). The innumerable amount of plot lines suggests that director Forster and his team had difficulty leaving certain things on the cutting room floor.
Only so many instances of a curmudgeon interacting with neighbours who are none the wiser suffice to drive home a point. Naturally, after being on the receiving end of impoliteness for so long, pushback will happen. Said pushback takes the shape of Marisol, who believes in the common good in everybody, however bitter they appear at first. All this is fine and should, in theory, make for a solid film. However, the screenplay by David Magee juggles an alarming number of minor and major subplots that are supposed to all culminate in Otto renewing his lease with pleasantness.
Some storyline-telling devices work well in books. Others are befitting of a streaming or limited series. Sometimes three-hour long epics are a requirement to develop a multitude of themes and stories. A Man Called Otto strives to pack an entire year’s worth of adventures and misadventures into its two-hour running time. It feels funny to call out a movie for being too short, considering that 2022 was the year of the 3+ hour-long epic, but either that or the screenplay should have concentrated on fewer hurdles for Otto to jump proverbially. There comes a time when the script tacks on one revelation of Otto’s backstory too many and more neighborhood-based challenges than there needs to be. In a nutshell, the movie is bloated.
Play Act Grumpy
Most people adore Tom Hanks, and with good reason. He’s starred and given unmistakable life to some of Hollywood’s brightest efforts, from Apollo 13 to the Tory Story adventures. The man played Walt Disney for crying out loud.
That said, not every effort can strike as strong a chord. Sometimes filmmakers and the actors themselves can get a little too clever for their own good. That isn’t to say that Hanks is poor in A Man Called Otto but there is a whiff of “play-acting.” Is it because he naturally comes off as uniquely pleasant when in public or giving interviews? Perhaps his back catalogue of playing largely decent people – however flawed they sometimes are – is what hinders this movie’s objective. For all intents and purposes, and some of this lies at the director’s feet, Hanks is pretending to be angry and grumpy. It’s sadly not a very convincing performance, but not because he can’t scowl or growl. He certainly can. In fact, he does so plenty of times in A Man Called Otto. Unfortunately, it comes across as exactly that: a game of pretend lacking conviction.
An Unsatisfying Vision
At the risk of sounding mind-numbingly obvious, the fact that film is a visual medium means that what the camera and editing bay accomplish can make or break a picture. Marc Forster, all the way back from his Bond directing days, has shown an impatient eye.
Shots in vehicles are uncomfortably close as if the set-up was rushed due to lack of time. Edits come in by the dozen, making spatial awareness and the geography of moments occasionally difficult to grasp. Even when the camera and editing take a breather for a moment, the interiors are lit in a particularly uninspired fashion. Perhaps Forster was aiming for blandness, given that most of the story has a wintry setting and the houses the characters live in are industrially cookie-cutter. Maybe. Be that as it may, the film isn’t interesting to look at. Darkly lit, minimalist set design lacking any personality, too many harsh edits, etc. This isn’t the first time Forster concocts a somewhat drab, non-descript aesthetic for a project. He made Winnie-the-Pooh look drab. That takes effort.
The film was granted a very limited release in exclusive markets towards the end of December, presumably for awards season consideration. It’s playing in a few more markets as of Friday, Jan 6th, and will play wide starting a week later, Jan 13th.
One imagines there is some logic to the release date. The story is predominantly set during winter and its main character is an angry fossil. January is typically a boring month, with few statutory holidays to speak of and, depending on where one lives, a painfully cold one to get through. Even so, unless one has predilections towards films of this ilk that marry saccharine twists and drama, A Man Called Otto may be best saved for when it won’t remind anyone of the unenviable weather outside.