Love the man, less the movie

Director and writer owe all their box office to Tom Hanks as a movie’s star

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Tom Hanks is reliably, dependably Tom Hanksy in this feelgood comedy-drama, the newest addition to the “grumpy old guy in need of redemption” genre. Unfortunately, his steady work is almost undone by clunky direction and shoddy, shortcut scripting.

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Tom Hanks is reliably, dependably Tom Hanksy in this feelgood comedy-drama, the newest addition to the “grumpy old guy in need of redemption” genre. Unfortunately, his steady work is almost undone by clunky direction and shoddy, shortcut scripting.

Based on A Man Called Ove, the 2012 best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, and the subsequent Oscar-nominated 2015 Swedish film adaptation, this Pittsburgh-set Hollywood version starts off with a promisingly prickly scene.

Otto is at the hardware store buying rope, specifically five feet of rope, but because the store only prices it by the yard, he’s asked to pay for two yards. The dispute over that phantom sixth foot goes on so long the guy in line behind Otto offers to pay the 33-cent difference. But for the defiantly cranky Otto, it’s not really about the 33 cents. It’s the principle of the thing.

Otto is opinionated and difficult, impatient and brusque. When he’s not rigidly enforcing neighbourhood rules about recycling and parking permits, he’s harumphing about the general decline of America, what with the kids and their phones, and the men who can’t parallel park a trailer, and the utility companies that put you on hold with crappy music.

There is, however, a darker dramatic thread running under this litany of comic complaints: Otto plans to use that five feet of rope to hang himself. He’s depressed. He’s been pushed out at the factory where he worked for decades, and he’s mourning the death of his deeply beloved wife. (When he wakes in the morning, his hand reflexively goes to her side of the bed.)

Over the next few days, Otto makes repeated attempts to die by suicide, all played for comedy that doesn’t quite work. Thankfully, he is also repeatedly saved by interruptions, especially from the new family across the street, a friendly, lively, noisy bunch led by the very forthright Marisol (Mexican television and musical star Mariana Treviño) and the very sweet Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). (Tommy doesn’t know the name for an Allen wrench, so Otto immediately classifies him as a nitwit.)

With some prodding from the ever-persistent Marisol, Otto reluctantly connects with his oddball neighbours and even ends up adopting a frazzly-looking stray cat. He’s encouraged to take on some real estate baddies who want to kick everyone out of their homes and put up more “ticky-tacky condos.” (The firm’s cartoonishly villainous name is Dye and Merica, and just in case you don’t pick up on the possibilities there, Otto points them out: “It sounds just like ‘Die America,’” he grumbles.)

The clichés are thick. Marisol, perilously close to being the immigrant character tasked with representing warmth and life and family feeling, is fortunately saved from stereotype by Treviño’s very sharp, very filled-out performance.

Niko Tavernise/Sony Pictures

The performances of Tom Hanks, right, and Mariana Treviño are the best things about this adaptation of the acclaimed 2015 Swedish hit film and 2012 novel.

In the novel, Ove goes beyond being a curmudgeon to being an occasionally mean-spirited cat-kicker. Here the character is softened by the casting of Hanks, Hollywood’s go-to Mr. Nice Guy, who sometimes plays exasperated but is rarely outright unpleasant. Even when Otto is at his crankiest, we know he’s a fundamentally decent guy who’s going to come around.

That predictability is not necessarily a bad thing, as we reach the story’s lightly funny, sweetly weepy ending. The problem is getting there, which involves the kind of start-and-stop gear-grinding we see when Otto teaches Marisol how to drive stick.

Otto, who cares about things being well made, is let down by director Marc Forster (whose all-over-the-place resumé includes Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction and Quantum of Solace) and screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi), who sometimes seem to be struggling with basic filmmaking mechanics.

There are poorly integrated flashbacks in which the young Otto is played by Truman Hanks, Tom Hanks’s real-life son. Truman has the family chin but otherwise doesn’t convince. There are shoved-in subplots and undeveloped minor characters that don’t even reach Hallmark holiday movie level.

The core friendship between Otto and Marisol works, reinforced by the committed and crafted performances of Treviño and Hanks. For the rest of it, though, as Otto himself might lament, “Feelgood films, they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”

Niko Tavernise/Sony Pictures via AP

The ending of A Man Called Otto is predictable but solid, but the path to that ending is crumbled by weak direction and scripting.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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