When you have an international best seller that was on the NYT list for 42 weeks and then made into a multi-Oscar-nominated Swedish film that became the third-most successful in the history of that country Ingmar Bergman called home, you might wonder what the need was for an English-language American remake. The answer is a chance to give Tom Hanks a role he can run with and, more important, to bring a very human, often funny, character-driven story back to light in a time that needs it more than ever.
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The Swedish film, A Man Called Ove, was a big hit in 2015, as was the book by Fredrik Backman, and it happened to contain a lead performance by Rolf Lassgard that soared. He played Ove, a cranky widower who, when he wasn’t insisting on everyone doing things his way or the highway in his self-contained neighborhood, was figuring out ways to commit suicide in order to join his wife who had died of cancer.
Screenwriter David Magee and director Marc Forster have not altered the basic plot for this Pittsburgh-set remake titled A Man Called Otto, but unlike another Pittsburgh-set Hanks movie, 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which earned Hanks a Supporting Oscar nomination as the gentle Mister Rogers, this one gives its star to operate at full-crank levels until we inevitably see his transformation into a man with a very big heart. We know it is coming, and that is what makes the familiarity of this tale work so well. It is comforting, and Hanks navigates it with the expert skill you would expect. It is nice to see him doing comedy again as well. It has been awhile, but this earns its laughs and smiles in completely believable ways, never forced, thank God.
A Man Called Otto also benefits from a strong supporting cast, particularly with a breakout performance from Mexican star Mariana Treviño who plays Marisol, the new neighbor who has moved in across the street with a loving husband, Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their two daughters. She does not take any of Otto’s cantankerousness personally and in fact, with sheer will of personality, bulldozes her way into his life, one as we see in different moments he is shockingly trying to end (in almost Harold and Maude-style vignettes). It is clear that Otto Anderson has run this ‘hood the way he demands, but he is about to meet his match — and that also goes for the adorable stray cat who also comes uninvited into his world. That cat, Schmagel, is a scene stealer to be sure, but a welcome one.
Forster and Magee also use flashbacks of the younger Otto (played by Hanks’ real-life youngest son and uncanny lookalike Truman Hanks) and Sonya (Rachel Keller) as they meet, marry, endure tragedy, and share a life. The flashbacks are not intrusive and really add to our understanding of just who Otto was, and perhaps why he became the way he is today. Both young stars are well cast here in a movie that knows exactly what it is doing in order to win our hearts. Also in the cast is Mike Birbiglia as a corporate Real Estate company rep who plays the “villain” of sorts, but his character is pretty one-dimensional.
Matthias Koenigswieser’s fine cinematography fulfills the changing needs of the film’s visual style perfectly, Barbara Ling’s production design serves the story well, and there is a lovely score to match by Thomas Newman. A song, “Til You’re Home” by Rita Wilson and David Hodges is a perfect touch at the end, and has already been Oscar shortlisted.
The reason this American remake is so vital, at least to me, is that it is ultimately a story of human connection coming at a time of unprecedented divisiveness and heartlessness in an America that seems to have truly lost its way. This is somewhat a return to a bit of old style Frank Capra spirit in a social media age, and a family film that serves a purpose to remind us the good within us, no matter how deep down you have to dig.
Producers are Hanks, Wilson, Gary Goetzman, and the Swedish film’s original producer Fredrick Wikstrom Nicastro. Sony Pictures opens the Columbia release Friday in a limited LA/NY exclusive run before going wide on January 13.
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