A Man Called Otto/A Man Called Ove

Tom Hanks’ new film is an American remake of Sweden’s submission for 2016’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, A Man Called Ove, which also received an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling. It’s enjoyable, or what my wife and I call “fine,” which is code for just OK. For those looking for a good date movie, or something mildly enjoyable, it is a good choice for those who like Hanks and a good story.

Without going into too much plot detail, Hanks plays an old grouch. There are reasons for his grouchiness in general, and his excess grouchiness at the film’s opening in particular, and the film explains them in good time. There are unexpected occurrences which help to keep the film moving along, but the ark of the story will be obvious to anyone in the first few minutes (or even before sitting down to watch the film). (Spoiler alert: He meets folks who help him be less grouchy.) (Second spoiler alert and warning: The film depicts more than one suicide attempt, and works to mitigate the power of the scenes through comedy in the scene or in the context around it.)

There are some strong points to the newer film, which hews very closely to the original. The changes made are a great example of the challenges of aiming a film at an audience with a different culture. Some changes are good and help to clarity characterization and motivation. Some, not so good.

The couple that figures mostly strongly in Ove’s life are Swedish (the husband) and Iranian (the wife). The new film has them as an American husband and a feisty Mexican wife. The “Persian wife” in the Swedish film, as she is called, is a more recessive character compared to the delightful and “in-your-face” Mexican. (In both films, the husbands are disappointments, as characters in the film and for the viewer to watch). Pregnancies and accident feature in both films in pretty much the same way. Judgments about cars also feature in both, with major American “adjustments” that can be read as full equivalents to the Swedish conflict.

Some changes are an improvement, not just an accommodation to another culture. There is a subplot with a quarter that makes much more sense in the new film, and was a small but wise change. I’m not sure if it worked to the new film’s benefit or not, but the Swedish film featured Ove’s relationship with his father in much greater detail. That puts more pressure on the American film to give a kind of explanation and backstory for Otto’s attitudes and behaviors, but the Hanks film succeeds in its lighter presentation of Otto’s background.

The opening “parking” scene in the Swedish film makes less sense and is more overly comedic in the newer version, which is a weakness. (Don’t read on if you want to see the film with fresh eyes and ears.)  But perhaps the biggest “mistake” was changing a young gay character to a trans character. One reason is that it made more sense in terms of plot to have the father kick his son out on the day he announced his homosexuality to his family. That is the beginning of a plotline that works to bring redemption to Otto/Ove. TBH, that plotline isn’t completely believable based on what we know about Ove in the first film, but it’s more believable than in the newer version.

The newer version replaces the gay character with a trans character, which compromises a minor plot point. It doesn’t make as much sense for the father to somehow kick him out on that particular day when the transition process obviously took a long time, and the unseen father would have had plenty of time to deal with his thoughts and emotions. Plot-wise, it made sense in the first film to have the coming out be a turning point that put the character out on the street. But the American film seems to indicate that the father decided willy-nilly to put his child out when it’s been obvious that the father was in the know for a long time.

Secondly, the trans character’s introduction takes the film out of the fable-like quality of the original story, and the American version up to that point in the movie, and feels like a socio-political statement that belongs in another film. Reams could be written about updating a gay character with a trans character, but that discussion has layers of complexity and possible contentiousness that are for another forum. Suffice it to say that for this viewer, the Swedish film fits this plot point more subtly and sensibly into its film’s world.

The great weakness of the American film, again for this viewer, is its leading man. I’ve loved Tom Hanks in nearly everything he’s done, with the exception of The Ladykillers, the ridiculous Da Vinci Code movies, and Elvis. To use that word again, he’s “fine” throughout, and is clearly giving the character what he can. But Hanks’ persona is likability incarnated, and he can’t escape that here. He’s as genuinely believable as a grouch as Charlie Sheen would be playing a sincerely devout country parish priest in medieval Europe. Denzel Washington has the same problem leaning into his more evil characters. For Washington and Hanks, the characterization that plays opposite to his persona and personality can only go so deep (though DW does a better job acting against his character than Hanks). Hanks’ work comes off as more of an impersonation of a grouch than a completely believable person. For many people, that may be fun. But the film could have used the edge that a darker outline would have delivered to Otto.

Mariana Treviño as neighbor Marisol is Otto’s sunny and personable counterpoint, and she is a delight throughout. There is also a small side story of Otto’s/Ove’s connection to a neighbor that borders on the saccharine but is finally deftly handled.

There are a number of reasons to go see this film, one of the few currently aimed at adults. The story is a good if not original one, and the acting is uniformly solid. It’s a classic cliché to say that “the original,” especially if it’s a foreign-language film, is better. It’s not, but it’s not worse. It’s just different, and for this writer, the fun was not so much in the story as in finding and evaluating the changes.


About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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