Bitter Scandinavian comedy uneasily mixes with saccharine Hollywood sentimentality in director Marc Forster’s A Man Called Otto, which opens in Prague cinemas this weekend after debuting stateside in December.
A Man Called Otto is adapted from the novel A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove) by Fredrik Backman, and it hews so closely to the 2015 Swedish film of the same name that filmmaker Hannes Holm also gets a writing credit. But as this darkly comic tale about a man whose attempts to kill himself keep getting interrupted claws at our heartstrings, it’s clear something got lost in translation.
Still, A Man Called Otto works thanks to an ingratiating lead performance by Tom Hanks and articulate direction from Forster, who brings a Capraesque sensibility to the proceedings and a striking Scandinavian feel to urban America (though the setting is never specified, the film was shot in and around Pittsburgh.)
Hanks stars as the titular Otto Anderson, who we pick up with on his morning ‘rounds’ at his small residential development; he examines his lawn for dog urine, makes a note of cars that don’t have their parking passes properly displayed, chastises the paperboy for not leaving his bike at the rack, and sorts recycling that has been improperly disposed of.
Everyone around him is an idiot, according to Otto… except his recently departed wife. So he decides to join her.
But Otto just can’t seem to kill himself, as his attempts are frequently interrupted by others. Those include new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who try to crack through Otto’s gruff exterior, and trans leaflet distributor Malcolm (Mack Bayda), who could use a couch for the night after being kicked out by his father.
Through flashbacks, we see Otto’s growing relationship with wife Sonya, played as a young woman by Rachel Keller opposite Truman Hanks (Tom’s son) as a young Otto. Bereft of the bitter satire of the present-day scenes, the sepia-tinted flashbacks are genuinely affectionate, even if the characterization of the young Otto feels artificial.
Everyone in the audience knows where A Man Called Otto is going: this grumpy old man will eventually warm up to his neighbors and find value in his life. But unlike the ironic comedy of the Swedish film, this one becomes an unrepentant tear-jerker: not because we are moved by Otto’s journey, but rather the small kindnesses offered to him, and how he ultimately repays them.
We never really buy Hanks as the gruff old man; the actor’s good nature shines through and exposes the character’s true kind heart from A Man Called Otto’s opening scenes. But it’s still fun watching Otto fight for principles in a society that has no care for them, and Hanks effortlessly carries the film in an unusual role.
Like the Liam Neeson vehicle Cold Pursuit, it’s clear that something got lost in translation when adapting a bitter Scandinavian comedy for American audiences. But also like that movie, A Man Called Otto works in its own offbeat way. This dark comedy is unexpectedly moving — just make sure to bring some tissues.