“A Man Called Otto” is an English-language adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s Swedish bestseller “A Man Called Ove.” It was previously brought to the big screen by Hannes Holm. Holm’s 2016 adaptation, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, was a morbidly funny and moving success. As Ove, the grumpy, suicidal protagonist whose life changes when he meets an immigrant family, Rolf Lassgard gave one of that year’s best performances.
As with so many foreign films that get the Americanized treatment, “A Man Called Otto” is completely defanged, eliminating the dark humor that made the original successful enough to command a remake. Though it re-creates several of the same scenes from Backman’s novel and Holm’s film (this movie is based on both sources), it lacks the prickliness that kept the original film from becoming the treacly mess that director Marc Forster and writer David Magee serve up here.
They even changed the stray cat who adopts the protagonist to be more audience friendly. Ove’s cat was jacked-up and scraggly. This fluffed-up cat will break the Internet: It’s the Farrah Fawcett of feral felines.
As rule-enforcing neighbor Otto Anderson, Tom Hanks is miscast. This version removes some of the Job-like trials that made Ove so ornery, but we’re still expected to buy Hanks as mean and unlikable. Movies like “The Road to Perdition” and “Elvis” proved these are two character traits he simply cannot play. When Otto yells at residents for minor transgressions, it’s easy to see why no one takes him seriously.
I kept imagining Clint Eastwood in this role, and then I remembered why: He already did it. See “Gran Torino.”
In addition to being a curmudgeon, Otto is a man in great emotional pain. His wife, Sonya (played in sweet flashbacks by Rachel Keller), recently died of cancer. Every time he visits her gravesite to place the pretty pink flowers she enjoyed in life, he tells her of his plans to join her. Several times in “A Man Called Otto,” Otto attempts suicide only to be rudely interrupted by the neighbors who aggravate him.
Now, here’s where juggling tone is very important. The original film treated these scenes as pitch-black comedy. Ove’s incompetence and his deep-seated need to help his “idiot” neighbors contribute to his failures. It feels like Sonya is sending these people from beyond the grave to distract her beloved husband, especially because the love story between them plays out as Ove’s life is flashing before his eyes during his suicide attempts.
By contrast, Forster treats these scenes as either slapstick or manipulation; in one cringeworthy instance, he uses a needle drop of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” while intercutting Otto’s last suicide attempt with a flashback of the biggest tragedy in his young life. Something this potentially distasteful does not need the director goosing your heartstrings with sappy songs. The gravitas this scene requires is absent.
Hanks is much more convincing in scenes where his guard is down, especially when Mariana Treviño is his scene partner. She plays Marisol, the wife of Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Their growing family — two kids, one on the way — has just moved into the house opposite Otto’s. Marisol and Otto’s introduction occurs when Tommy almost backs up his U-Haul trailer into his new home.
Since Otto thinks Tommy is an “idiot” (his favorite noun to call people, by the way), he feels compelled to help Marisol whenever possible. Treviño and Hanks have great comic and emotional chemistry; he lets her steal scenes with her quick wit, and she brings out Hanks’s best Everyman qualities. A similar energy exists in scenes between Hanks and Mack Bayda, who plays his transgender neighbor, Malcolm, whom Otto takes in after his father throws him out.
The true villain of “A Man Called Otto” is an evil real estate organization that’s trying to scare senior residents out of their homes so it can build more valuable condos. These jackals are truly sinister, perhaps too much so for a feature this light. The addition of a social-media-influencer character is also jarring, as if the filmmakers were making a jaded play to attract the young whippersnappers who might otherwise think this movie was only for their grandparents.
“A Man Called Otto” is a family affair, with Hanks’s wife, Rita Wilson, producing and their son Truman Hanks playing Otto as a young man. The younger Hanks conveys Otto’s shyness around Sonya and his wide-eyed romantic notions so well that one can easily see why the elder Otto would fall into angry despair over her loss. His rebirth would have played so much more effectively had this movie examined that darkness. Instead, it’s too busy aiming for the heart when it should be going for the jugular.
A MAN CALLED OTTO
Directed by Marc Forster. Written by David Magee, based on “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman and the film by Hannes Holm. Starring Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Rachel Keller, Mack Bayda, and Truman Hanks. At AMC Boston Common and suburban theaters. 126 minutes. PG-13 (brief violence, suicide attempts, permed kitty cat)
Read more recent stories from Odie Henderson:
In ‘Wildcat’ documentary, seeking redemption in the rain forest | ★★
National Film Registry gives props to two docs with Massachusetts ties
‘Miracle on 34th Street’: A Christmas classic turns 75
Same script, different cast: ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ | ★★½
‘EO’: A different kind of jackass movie | ★★★ ½
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.