There’s a reason why stories about curmudgeons who find redemption in newfound friendships keep getting told: They reinforce the idea that companionship is an essential part of humanity, a need so irresistible that even repeated declarations of “Bah, humbug!” are powerless before it.
It’s against this truth of the human condition that Fredrik Backman published his novel A Man Called Ove in 2012, which got adapted as a film in his native Sweden in 2015. In it, a grumpy widower (Rolf Lassgård) finds that his repeated attempts to kill himself keep getting interrupted by the neighbors in his gated cul de sac; he has to delay because they keep committing minor infractions like driving through no-driving zones or parking bikes where they shouldn’t or not separating their garbage. You could say that Ove’s officious obsessive-compulsiveness keeps saving him. And when a rowdy interracial couple with their two precocious daughters move in across the way…well, forget it.
That quirky dramedy has now been remade by screenwriter David Magee and director Marc Forster (whose filmography includes such disparate titles as Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner and World War Z). The curmudgeonly loner has now been renamed Otto and is played by beloved Hollywood star Tom Hanks. The sweet-natured couple who insist on befriending Otto and relieving his sadness after the recent death of his wife is now played by Mariana Treviño (easily the best thing about this remake, infusing it with messy life) and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (lumbering and kind).
A Man Called Otto is a leaner, more economical affair than its Swedish predecessor, shaving off half an hour from the narrative by, among other things, eliminating an extended childhood flashback featuring a child actor almost getting run over by a train engine (!). The remake also changes a teenager whom Otto helps later in the story from a gay youth in the original to a trans (Mack Bayda).
But otherwise, Magee’s script rarely diverges from the original. Which means the original’s problems are also grafted wholesale onto the remake: Otto’s recently departed wife Sonya (Rachel Keller) is still a barely sketched-in saint, a woman who saw through the young Otto’s (played by Hanks’s full-cheeked son Truman) hardscrabble beginnings all the way to the good man he could be, but never seems to be a complete person herself. And I’m not sure the remake does any better navigating the jarring tonal shifts between suicide attempts and ensuing comedy.
The biggest drawback, ironically, may be Tom Hanks. No matter how gruff or antisocial he may act, there is still that trademark Hanks twinkle in Otto. He just doesn’t have the flinty edge Clint Eastwood brought to his get-off-my-lawn septuagenarian in Gran Turismo. Or the dangerous glint of a Robert DeNiro or a Bryan Cranston. There is never a moment while you watch Hanks that you ever wonder whether Otto will get his mandated redemption and become the cuddly surrogate grandpa next door.
But then Hanks is the reason why A Man Called Otto is the equivalent of cinematic comfort food, a warm hug against the fractious mood of these times. Sometimes all you need is Forrest Grump.
A Man Called Otto starts showing in cinemas on Wednesday, January 25.