‘A Man Called Otto’ Turns Tom Hanks Into a Lovable Curmudgeon 

A film like “A Man Called Otto” presents a premise where the lead performance matters much more than the somewhat familiar story. Some viewers will already know the narrative since this is an American update of a Swedish bestseller by Fredrik Backman, which in turn was adapted into an enjoyable 2015 movie. This new version thrives best on the skill of Tom Hanks, who is so renowned as an embodiment of American niceness, it’s refreshing to see him be an elderly jerk for most of the film’s two hours. Like comedians who excel at drama, Hanks can seamlessly switch to being overbearing. As a result, even viewers who are skeptical about yet another U.S. remake of a European title might find themselves rediscovering the plot with new fondness.

Hanks is the Otto of the title, a grump who lives in a housing complex surrounded by forest. It used to be a great place to live but Otto has lost the will to keep going. His wife recently passed away and he’s practically being forced into retirement as an engineer. To fill the void, Otto is his community’s self-appointed enforcer of all rules and regulations. If you park the wrong way, he will notice. A new family soon moves in, a pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) along with their young daughters. For Otto, it can be a chore dealing with Tommy’s clumsiness or Marisol’s inability to drive. The fact that they are Latin American immigrants doesn’t help with Otto’s old-fashioned ways. But Marisol has a way of jabbing at Otto’s exterior by forcing him to be helpful while also showing him the kind of friendship that has been missing in his home. 

It’s this battle to break through Otto’s hardened emotional self that gives Hanks the opportunity to totally shed his nice guy persona. After playing Mr. Rogers “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” being the guy who wants to deck Fred Rogers is a great turn. We all saw his recent outburst on camera over paparazzis shoving his wife. Now we can see him extend that bite into a whole performance. Hanks has done somber before, in great films like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Philadelphia” or recent thrillers such as “Greyhound.” As Otto he’s not just serious, but bitter and irritating. He clears the snow on his walkway on schedule every morning and scoffs at those who don’t do the same. When old friend and neighbor Anita (Juanita Jennings) needs help with her heater, Otto does it but with the attitude of a dad wagging his finger at an incapable child. He doesn’t even have the heart to take in a stray cat. Director Marc Forster still keeps the dark comedy of the book and original movie, “A Man Called Ove,” and has Otto grumpily going back home, planning how to commit suicide. One day it’s a noose then a shotgun, each time interrupted to his annoyance by Marisol needing a favor. Hanks easily matches Rolf Lassgård’s lovably mean Ove, capturing the same tired rage at living. Mariana Treviño is a great revelation, vivaciously creating Marisol into more than just a cardboard character.

Such people can become surprise heroes. If “A Man Called Otto” were just about an unsavory old man, then the charm would quickly wear off. Deep down Otto still cares about his neighbors and is suspicious about the caretakers snooping in on the older inhabitants to clear the way for gentrification. When Marisol introduces him to the delights of Salvadoran cookies, his shield truly begins to thin. The entire supporting cast is expertly designed for a feel-good experience. Mack Bayda’s Malcolm delivers the paper every morning, then seeks shelter when his father kicks him out for being trans. His high school teacher was Otto’s wife, so he assumes Otto must be just as kind. Jimmy (Cameron Britton) is the goofy neighbor always there at the right time to help during a crisis and later an influencer proves very useful after Otto accidentally goes viral after taking command of an emergency at the local train station. What is gradually revealed with heart-tugging effect is Otto’s backstory, and how his stern acts of kindness come from a man who was once quite happy, until life’s tragedies wore him down.

The flashbacks going over Otto’s young romance with his wife are emotive, even if full of cheese. They provide a convincing window into how most grumps don’t tend to be just formed that way. Instead, they are carriers of multiple scars. By helping Marisol go to the hospital, learn some Spanish, and be part of a family, Otto is recovering much of what he lost when his wife passed. You can already conclude this will not be a movie with a despairing ending. Even if we can guess where Otto’s journey is headed, Tom Hanks makes it enjoyable to follow. It can be fatal for a movie if the main character is unsympathetic, giving us little reason to care. Otto is special because we want to root for him even as he can be a pain to those in his vicinity. By creating a curmudgeon with layers, Hanks reminds us that he is an actor of multiple ranges as well, who is capable of making us cringe and smile.

A Man Called Otto” releases Dec. 30 in select theaters and expands Jan. 13 in theaters nationwide.