Tom Hanks has worked his high-wattage, regular-guy-hero amiability for so long that he was bound to experiment with a year like 2022 eventually. In the summer, he gave us an oily, flesh-packed Colonel Tom Parker with that strange barbed-wire accent in “Elvis,” then he took on Geppetto in the year’s other, forgettable “Pinocchio,” and now he’s been fitted for grumpypants, frown lines, and a self-made noose as a suicidal sourpuss in “A Man Called Otto.”
But we know Hanks by now, and what kind of curmudgeon he’d want to play, which means you don’t have to be familiar with the source material of “Otto” to guess within the first few minutes — when he’s being obnoxious to a perfectly kind hardware store cashier, but in that isn’t-it-cute-how-mean-he-is way — that this is one of those movies typically described in terms of “surrendering” to “charms,” and “winning you over.”
The story of an ordinary Scrooge’s new lease on happiness, “Otto” is an American adaptation of the widely read Swedish novel “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, from the “Finding Neverland” team of director Marc Forster and writer David Magee. “Ove” has been filmed once already, a 2015 adaptation which Sweden submitted for that year’s International Film Oscar, earning a nomination. The other surefire observation from the New Jersey-set, Hanks-led “Otto” is that this year’s golden statuettes are very much on this unremarkable film’s none-too-complicated mind.
Living in a house on a closed-off oval of a street, Otto is not just his neighborhood association’s resident crank, he’s its unofficial (and unwanted) watchdog for everything from vehicle rules to animal control to basically whatever irritates him. (A muttered “Idiot” is his favorite tag to any encounter.) Newly jobless as a forced retiree from the auto plant, believably friendless, and a widower of many years, Otto approaches his various attempts at suicide with procedural efficiency, only to be interrupted unwittingly by the newest move-ins, a kind, spirited young family of four led by sharp-tongued, pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño).
Impervious to Otto’s rudeness, Marisol enlists her cranky new neighbor’s help in small, then incrementally more involved ways that – surprise – act as the defrosting agent for his eventual thaw. The origins of his grouchiness, meanwhile, are doled out in flashbacks: how as an idealistic young man (Truman Hanks) he fell for the sparkling Sonya (Rachel Keller), yet over the years let life’s setbacks harden and isolate him.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently unappealing about a familiar, sentimental story like this, with its worthwhile takeaways about senior vulnerability, tolerance, and the healing power of community. But there was a time when Hollywood professionals wanting to inject this stuff into our veins deployed wit, craft, and a supremely-honed gloss – the trimmings that made us forget we were being manipulated into a state of awwww. So why does this “Otto” have to feel so tossed-off, be so unfunny, and look so crummy and choppy? Are we that far removed from the onetime ideal of elegantly packaged holiday fare that was supposed to not look like cheap TV?
Hanks is expectedly fine, but the role is closer to the sitcom world he left behind instead of the more pointed, Eastwood-in-“Gran Torino”-style mix of humor, pain, and redemption it could have been (while still being PG-level heartwarming). He’s more of a geezer puppet than a character: entertaining at times, but hardly memorable. Treviño is likable enough, capturing something flinty and witty about a certain type of no-nonsense mom, and yet there’s no getting around the schematics of her creation.
Outside of those two, it’s a woefully zipless character roster, with the casting of Hanks’ youngest son as his younger self something of a gimmicky misfire, and Mike Birbiglia wasted as a real estate villain. Then again, Forster’s haphazard direction is so checked-out it’s painful – he shows no interest in giving anyone a scene that isn’t wholly about snapping something into place, and his comedy mise-en-scène and timing in even the simplest moments of humor is flat. And the less said about Thomas Newman’s phoned-in score, the better.
“A Man Called Otto” may be about restoring the Ottos of the world to a new sense of purpose. So why does it feel like for anyone who cares about movies, this is just going to create more of the ill-tempered, fist-shaking, get-off-my-lawn kind?
“A Man Called Otto” opens in LA and NYC Dec. 30, limited Jan. 6 and wide Jan. 13 via Sony Pictures.