Based on the popular novel, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – and presumably renamed to avoid problems with pronunciation – A Man Called Otto stars Tom Hanks as the titular Otto Anderson, the kind of character most forgivingly known as a total curmudgeon. When we first encounter him, he’s trudging grumpily around his neighbourhood, firing off hostile remarks to his neighbours at point blank range. They’ve come to tolerate him over the years and it’s clear from early on that some kind of tragedy haunts his past, though the details will only be revealed in flashbacks. In these scenes, the young Otto is portrayed by Truman Hanks (who, it must be said, looks nothing like his father).
But a seismic change is coming with the arrival of a new set of neighbours. Marisol (enchantingly portrayed by Mariana Treviño) is Mexican, the mother of two young girls, with a third child already on the way. Together with her easy-going but hapless husband, Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), she immediately launches a charm-offensive, determined to win her gruff old neighbour over – and, bit by bit, she begins to make progress.
The story arc here puts me in mind of A Christmas Carol with all the Christmassy bits cut out. Like Scrooge, Otto has to be reminded of the good things he encountered before a set of unfortunate circumstances transformed him into the miserable, hard-bitten specimen he’s become. He also has to come to terms with a crippling loss that occurred back down the years and to address a long-standing feud he’s had with his other neighbours, Reuben (Peter Lawson) and Anita (Juanita Jennings). Most importantly of all, he has to learn to change his ways before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, he makes regular attempts to end his own life, with decidedly comic results. It’s also interesting to note Otto’s developing friendship with transgender teen, Malcolm (Mack Bayda), kicked out of their house by their father.
If A Man Called Otto occasionally strays a little too close to the lake of sentimentality, screenwriter David Magee and director Marc Forster know exactly when to snatch proceedings back from the edge and the result is a charming tale, by turns funny and poignant. Most of the laughs are generated by Treviño, who displays a wonderful gift for comic timing and of whom I expect to see a lot more in the future. The film’s conclusion will inevitably coax tears from all but the most hardbitten viewers.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. I haven’t read the source novel, so I can’t tell you if it’s a decent adaptation – but I enjoy the film. It marks the point where Tom Hanks officially becomes ‘old.’ And watching it, I’m eerily transported back to the first time I met him, interviewing him for the movie Splash in 1984, when we were both a good deal younger.