A Man Called Otto
Fredrik Backman must feel so disappointed.
It is a well-established fact that I have a special kind of allergy toward American remakes of Nordic films, thus I was more than wary when I heard that Marc Forster was working on an American adaptation of Fredrik Backman's wonderful novel A Man Called Ove. The Swedish film featured veteran Swedish actor Rolf Lassgård in the role of the cranky Ove who in the course of the story receives a lesson in love and meaningful social contact from his newly-settled pregnant neighbor. The movie was a massive success and still remains the third biggest film of all time at the Swedish box office. The reasons fueling my distrust toward Forster's project have mainly to do with the American creators' inclination to narrow the scope of the storytelling as introduced in the original source, always striving to fit a story in the preconceived categories, or genres, that dominate today's cinematic landscape all over the world. A Man Called Otto is fortunate to have Tom Hanks leading the cast and providing his character with plausibility and genuineness, however this proves less than enough to save the overall picture of a movie which lacks consistency in terms of tone, a problem arisen by a jejune screenplay bearing the signature of David Magee, known for his commendable work in films such as The Life of Pi and Finding Neverland. This time, Magee seems to be out of his depth as he seems split between two distinct approaches regarding the tenor of the story: is this a black comedy in the spirit of Backman's novel and Hannes Holm's 2015 Swedish version or another "dramedy" in a series of sickly-sweet Hollywood productions, counting on a misplaced feeling of nostalgia, that, nevertheless, always hits the mark and succeeds in attracting a large portion of the audience? In her Guardian review, Wendy Ide writes: "A Man Called Otto taps into a seemingly unquenchable audience appetite for stories of cantankerous grumps redeemed by the healing embrace of community". In other words, this sort of story premise has become a trend.
As a movie that is chiefly character-oriented, it is the protagonist's duty to become the axis around which the story will unfurl. However, the presentation of Otto's character suffers from a few misgivings. He is supposed to be a borderline misanthropist, frequently hurling abuse to the people surrounding him for no good reason and a pessimist at heart, but in Forster's movie, the audience, in the majority of the situations, roots for Otto's arguments that seem to be legitimate. Let's take the first scene of the movie as an example: we watch as Otto shops a rope in a massive store. But, when he is about to pay, he realizes that he is charged for a larger amount of rope than he actually bought. As a consequence, he starts a fight with the clerk, calls for the manager etc. I don't see how this sequence adds to the veracity of the characterization as this behavior would be normal and expected by -almost- everyone. Where is the eternally whining for no good reason Ove (or Otto in this case) as we met him in Fredrik Backman's bestseller? In her article about the movie on Flickphilosopher.com, MaryAnn Johanson correctly observes: "I don't think the film ever hits on anything that Otto is being truly unreasonable about". Despite the lead actor's best efforts to portray a rather eccentric character, it is the weak screenplay that drags down the entire film. John Serba writes on Decider.com: "But when the writing is this flimsy, it forces even a stalwart superstar actor into playing little more than a caricature". The protagonist is a captive of the screenwriter, condemned by his vacillation regarding the proper mode of characterization. Of course, the director shares a great deal of responsibility for this critical malfunction which blemishes the entirety of the production.
But this is not the only flaw in A Man Called Otto. There is an inconsistency pervading the movie's atmosphere which is highlighted in the mushy flashback sequences, featuring Hanks's real-life son Truman in the role of young Otto, brimming with shallow emotion and oozing a cloying odour. Plus, the creators make everything in their power to let on where the story is going. Otto's transformation from a depressive, bitter middle-aged man into an individual who learns to appreciate the value of community is presaged from the beginning of the movie. On the upside, Mexican actress Mariana Treviño is an oasis of vivacity and joy, truly capturing the essence of her character who is supposed to bring petulant Otto back to the world of the living. Apart from that, I think that it is definitely not necessary to spend two hours of your life in order to watch Forster's adaptation that, once again, confirms the rule that remakes are -almost- always inferior to the originals. It is a shame for a writer of Backman's caliber, one of the most esteemed members of the Swedish literary elite, to see his work brought on the silver screen in such a disrespectful manner. I would urge you to first read the novel and then you can check out the Lassgård movie which truly did justice to the book.
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