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film review

Tom Hanks plays widower Otto in Marc Forster's A Man Called Otto, a remake of the hit Swedish film A Man Called Ove.Niko Tavernise/Sony Pictures

  • A Man Called Otto
  • Directed by Marc Forster
  • Written by David Magee, based on the novel by Fredrik Backman
  • Starring Tom Hanks, Mariana Trevino and Rachel Keller
  • Classification PG; 126 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Jan. 6, expands across Canada Jan. 13

There is one moment early in Marc Forster’s remake of the hit Swedish film A Man Called Ove that suggests this new film will be the sharpest, smartest kind of Hollywood redo.

While minding the young children of a neighbour who had to be rushed to hospital, ornery widower Otto (Tom Hanks) has a face-off against a ward clown, there to entertain and distract the kiddos. But when the clown asks to borrow Otto’s cherished lucky coin to perform a magic trick, we know that trouble is brewing. Instead of showing the expected clash, though, Forster quickly cuts to the messy aftermath: The clown is in tears, Otto is being questioned by hospital security and the kids’ mother is bewildered. It is a nice, quietly witty moment of subversion that offers moviegoers confidence that Forster won’t fall into the kind of hackneyed bits that so bedevil these kinds of cookie-cutter character dramas.

And it lasts for seven seconds, which is how long it takes for Forster to reverse course and decide instead to employ a flashback to show exactly how the Otto/clown kerfuffle transpired. What was briefly intimated becomes boldly underlined, and the filmmaker’s trust in his audiences is thrown out the window. From here on in, it becomes depressingly clear that A Man Called Otto will unfold exactly as you suspect, with no surprises (let alone effort) necessary.

Otto tries to ignore a picture drawn by the kids of his new neighbour, Marisol, who is played by Mariana Trevino.Niko Tavernise/Sony Pictures

A stickler for the rules of his suburban townhome association, the recently retired Otto spends his days complaining about his neighbours and the other various “idiots” who come across his way: those who don’t separate their recycling properly, those who don’t respect the local parking rules, those who are trying to redevelop the land for condos, those who are trying to charge him 33 cents more for the rope that he buys at the hardware store. And it is that rope that Otto hopes to hang himself with, given that he seemingly has nothing left to live for other than to complain about everyone else.

That is until a new Mexican family moves in across the street, its clan led by a cheerily pregnant mother (Mariana Trevino) whose requests for myriad acts of domestic assistance continually interrupt Otto’s many suicide attempts. I don’t think I need to elaborate on whether or not these new relationships will somehow course-correct Otto’s self-destructive plans.

Sticking close to the basics of Hannes Holm’s 2015 Swedish hit, which scored an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and is itself based on the bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman, Forster’s adaptation does one thing right: It casts Hanks as its title character, nicely reconfiguring Hollywood’s Nicest Man into This Film’s Biggest Grump. Naturally, the whole movie is a prolonged exercise in waiting to see just how long a man can go from sour jerk to sweet hero, but if you have to spend two hours watching such an inevitable transformation, then the erstwhile Mr. Rogers is the guy you want along for the ride.

Marisol's requests for myriad acts of domestic assistance continually interrupt Otto’s many suicide attempts.Dennis Mong/Sony Pictures

Not so much Hanks’s youngest son, Truman Hanks, who takes on his first big on-screen role here playing the younger version of Otto. Truman is no Tom in terms of charm and presence – not even close to his older brother, Colin – but the lad isn’t helped either by Forster’s flashback sequences, which are bathed in an oh-jeez dewy glow and soundtracked by the most saccharine of songs.

It is as if every time Forster is presented with an opportunity to do something mildly unconventional – or even, gasp, European in sensibility – he defaults to the easy and cheap Hollywood option. Even the central idea of Holm’s and Backman’s material – the darkly comic notion of how one guy just can’t seem to kill himself despite his best efforts – is either mistranslated or more likely ignored wholly by Forster, supplanted with the laziest kind of sentimentality.

Certainly, the elder Hanks invests his all in the proceedings, and will more than likely wring a few tears in the process (if nothing else, A Man Called Otto coming out in the same year as Elvis proves that Hanks has as much range as he does innate warmth). But like that confrontation with the coin-swapping clown, I have a feeling that most moviegoers will pull an Otto and demand their money back.