A Man Called Otto

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Gently coaxing boomers away from the culture-wars trenches, Otto is the sweet story of a sour man, a Christmas movie with no snow or jumpers (or Christmas, just for the avoidance of doubt). Otto is Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the guy failing to see that heaven is a place on earth, if you want it to be. See also Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood as the grouch copping redemption). And St Vincent (Bill Murray ditto).

It’s an adaptation of a Swedish novel, En man som heter Ove (A Man Called Ove), a bestseller in many markets, and it’s already been spun off once, into a hit film in Swedish, starring Rolf Lassgård, who you might know from various Swedish crime dramas based on Henning Mankel’s Wallander books.

Lassgård was widely regarded as having injected much necessary “flint” into his interpretation of Ove and Tom Hanks follows his cue as Otto, the sort of guy every neighbourhood seems to have – the one who argues about bins and parking and dogs, the neighbourhood-watch guy who does “his rounds” every morning and who, though he’s a pain in the butt, actually keeps everything working, his way.

Otto is a widower whose wife has recently died and in blackly comic interludes we see that he intends to join her as soon as he can – by noose, gun or carbon monoxide from the car exhaust – but fate intervenes, first by sabotaging his attempts at suicide and then by introducing into his life a new family who live over the way. The husband who can’t parallel park and has no DIY skills, the cute daughters, the garrulous wife who cooks but mostly talks and probably knows she’s all over Otto’s personal space but continues anyway.

There’s also a feral cat crying out for cuddles (Otto in feline form) and some other neighbours who Otto used to be really close to but has drifted away from. Redemption could come from any or all of these vectors, and in lock-stock, chickens-coming-home, boxes-being-ticked fashion, it does. It’s the film’s only real (minor) misstep – the rushed climax.

Otto reads a story to Marisol's two kids
On babysitting duty for Marisol’s kids

Hanks underplays throughout. Not too flinty, because that would make the redemption implausible. Not too transformed either. It is typical Hanks, in other words, thoughtful but easy. The rest of the cast largely falls in line with him, the exception necessarily being Mariana Treviño as Marisol, the pregnant talkative Hispanic young mum whose needs (driving lessons, babysitting) give Otto a path back to connection with the world. They are a lovely double act, as actors and characters.

Truman Hanks (son of) plays Otto as a younger man, meeting the light of his life, Sonya (Rachel Keller). This is stunt, nepo casting and there’s no real reason for it – Truman and Hanks are similar-ish but not compellingly so, but Truman is affable and charming and nerdy enough as a young Otto to make the transition into the older guy plausible.

More widely, this is a portrait of a generation, of people who are stoic, practical, dependable, but maybe a bit lacking when it comes to emotional intelligence and who are slightly bewildered by what they see as the modern world’s tendency to overshare.

It is shamelessly feelgood, how could it not be, and from the first appearance on screen of Otto, we know exactly where it’s heading. You’ve seen this film before and, let’s face it, it works pretty much every time. Director Marc Forster (everything from Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland to Quantum of Solace and World War Z) keeps it moving, as he knows he must. There are no tricks, beyond the one of deploying relentless emotional manipulation. How could you not play along?

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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