THB #271: A Man Called Otto
It’s a funny thing, remaking a movie for America that was a wonderful discovery in another language. For those who have loved the original, the idea of a remake seems unneeded and likely to be inferior, not unlike a book you love converted into a movie.
But we have been very fortunate in this regard this year. First, we got Living, the remake of Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru, moved to England of the 50s in a screenplay by the great Kazuo Ishiguro, directed by Oliver Hermanus and starring the impeccible Bill Nighy.
And now, a remake of A Man Called Ove, the Swedish comic drama from 2015. That film ended up twice Oscar nominated for International and Hair/Make-up. It ended up grossing $3.5 million for Music Box in America and $27 million in the rest of the world. You can stream it on Prime right now.
The director and the star came to my kitchen for a rollicking chat (in which you can see how they transformed Rolf Lassgård and got that nom)…
So now, we get A Man Called Otto, “a Tom Hanks movie” and indeed, Otto is the absolute center of this story. Great supporting casts in both films… but it is absolutely Ove/Otto’s journey.
Is having Tom Hanks are the absolute center good or bad? Well, it works great in the movie. But unlike the original, we, as an audience are always aware of Otto being Tom. This works both for and against the film. He gets to work against type, as the cranky, surly Otto. But we are always a little aware of him doing just that.
Thing is, you need to see the warm center under the bitter crust of this man. You need to see past his current habits and understand what he has been through. And no one is better at this than Tom Hanks. He plays two older men who are nasty pieces of work this year. Where they end up is very different. But without the subtext of Hanks being Hanks, Colonel Tom Parker (neither a Colonel or a Parker) would be insufferable. On a technical/critics level, it might have been a “better” performance with an actor for whom we carried not subtext. But it probably would be a less effective entertainment.
This is the extremely simple outline of A Man Called Otto: Hanks is a miserable man who seems to be in his late 60s or 70s. He enforces the social rules of his neighborhood like a beat cop, though he has no actually authority. He never smiles. He likes to fight over anything or nothing. Does he have anything to live for? It seems maybe not… but he better have or it will be a very short movie. But that something (or those somethings) arrives in small and unexpected ways. Why is Otto who he is? Can he be anything else at this late date of his life?
The journey is that small. And that huge.
Otto hit me in all the emotional ways it wants to hit us all. I laughed and I got frustrated and I felt fear and relief. You know, emotion. What movies are meant to make us feel.
Okay… now onto the analysis part…
A Man Called Otto is the last non-blockbuster entry into the Oscar race. As a result, it has been pre-dismissed by many. There are years in which this would make sense. But looking at this Oscar season, it would be a mistake.
In 2019, there was a similar film in The Upside. The original French film, The Intouchables, was a worldwide smash hit, making a star of Omar Sy, who went on to star in Lupin, on Netflix. $416 million international. $10 million domestic. The Weinstein Company had the domestic rights and Harvey was more interested in the English remake than in pulling in dollars for the French-version.
The Upside got pushed to STX in an output deal amidst the early #MeToo troubles for Weinstein and STX generated $108 domestic with the film, their 2nd highest grosser as a domestic distributor ever. Did anyone expect it to be a $100 million movie after a $20 million opening in a January release? No. It took them 8 weekends of good holds to get there… but they got there.
To be clear, the film was not an awards player. But it was opened in January and no one has a clear financial interest in chasing awards 11 months later.
I think A Man Called Otto could be even bigger commercially. And in a season of limited passions about “awards movies” from viewers and with a major studio spending on it, it could clearly be an Oscar movie, even this late in the game.
For me, it is the most engaging Tom Hanks-as-lead movie in 20 years, since Catch Me If You Can. It’s not that there aren’t some terrific films and performances in these last 20 years… but they are all kind of narrow in some way. This is not Sully or Walt Disney or Fred Rogers or Ben Bradlee. This is not a leading man in a mystery book that is one of the most read of a generation. This is a simple, angry, funny, sad human being. We all know at least one.
The argument against the film will start with “old people won’t go to the movies.” Well, I guess we will see. They open for paying audiences in a little under 3 weeks and I hope they open the movie up a little more in the marketing to draw people in.
Another secret ingredient here is Marc Forster, who has never really made a movie this pleasant. Stranger Than Fiction is really the only movie on Forster’s resume that qualifies in any way as humorous. But here, in a film that does have its dramatic moments, he is light on his feet and tells the story as cleanly and clearly as any he has before made. It’s not a tricky movie. The trick is to show your characters and their emotions - pleasant or unpleasant - without getting in the way. And in that regard, he triumphs. It is fascinating, looking at the original, how much moved almost exactly into the new film. But that is just a show of humility. If it works, don’t break it. And then bring your own voice as well.
And let’s not forget Mariana Treviño as a new neighbor for Otto. She is a ball of energy and emotion… perhaps enough so that she can compete seriously for a Supporting Actress nod. Her character is a bit more tied to her family than in the original. But she is still kinda unforgettable.
I don’t mean to oversell the movie. It is not a religious event. But it is a very human event. If you don’t push out some tears… well, the milk of human kindness may not have been served at your preschool. Yet, it is a happy journey in so many ways… even in the tears. It is a recognition of life’s shared experience.
I am loathe to hang awards expectations on companies that are fighting uphill. And the late date for this film does create an uphill fight. But they have 5 weeks+ to get Academy members to see the Tom Hanks film. And that’s what really matters.
Reviews may or may not be helpful. I have never been trusting of film critics to praise a film that makes them feel emotionally overwhelmed… the best don’t turn defensive… but many do. And you can’t argue that this is an intellectual exercise. I love me some Tár. That is an intellectual exercise. But not good for everyone. I don’t mock those who check out on the film, however much I love it… I just recognize them and understand that their votes will go elsewhere.
But I know what that audience of 1000+ voters for various awards groups was feeling tonight in that theater. And yes, Hanks in the room skews the survey. But they were with this man and this movie. Dave Karger did a very good job with an interview with 8 or 9 people after the film… not just a Hanks-fest. And over 80% of the audience stayed for the whole thing. That ain’t nothin’.
So, we shall see. This is a season screaming for some deck chairs to be moved around in the storm. And on Tuesday… Avatar Day. How will that final piece of the puzzle fit in?
One thing is certain though: Whatever we subscribe to in this life, no one gets out of it alive.