Review: A Man Called Otto and The Son — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Bill Newcott reviews two movies this week: A Man Called Otto starring Tom Hanks, and The Son starring Hugh Jackman.

A Man Called Otto (Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures) and The Son (Sony Pictures Classics)

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A Man Called Otto

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Stars: Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Mike Birbiglia

Writer: David Magee (based on Fredrik Backman’s novel and Hannes Holm’s screenplay)

Director: Marc Forster

If I had my druthers, Americans would embrace the notion of film as the Universal Language, and there would be no market for local remakes of truly wonderful movies that just happen to be in some tongue other than English.

Alas, that universe does not exist, and so we get perfectly adequate films like A Man Called Otto, Tom Hanks’ remake of 2015’s A Man Called Ove, a Swedish movie that was so magical, so pitch-perfect in its balance of dark foreboding and bubbly whimsy, that a U.S version was as inevitable as it was unnecessary.

Hanks stars as Otto, a recently widowed man who has also been pushed into retirement. Now he spends his days resentfully patrolling his Pittsburgh neighborhood, notepad in hand, enforcing HOA parking, dog-walking, and lawn maintenance regulations with the ruthlessness of a deranged high school principal.

Otto suspends his rounds only long enough to visit the grave of his wife, who clearly remains the only person he can talk to.

In real life, every single neighbor would hate Otto’s guts — or at least give him wide berth — but in this only-in-the-movies community, virtually every gently-quirky resident greets Otto with jaunty waves and persistent attempts at small talk.

Both versions of Otto — which are, in turn, based on a Swedish novel — draw their charm from the story’s conviction that the thing sad people need most is a cloud of positivity on which they can float to a realm of happiness. It’s a nice idea, even if it is demonstrably untrue, and Hanks has built up enough audience goodwill to pull off the unlikely transformation from grumpy old man to slightly less-grumpy father figure.

Otto touches on the same weighty themes as Ove — isolation, suicide, and mortality among them — but from the start, director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, World War Z) pulls back the drapes to brighten what in the original version was a decidedly murky room. Despite Hanks’s permanent scowl — as indelible at those overcast Pittsburgh skies — Otto trades in optimism; a sense that Otto’s redemption is not only possible, but inevitable.

It’s a decidedly American attitude, worthy of Frank Capra. And it works here, sort of.

Still, there’s something to be said for rough edges. And those, unfortunately, have been lost in translation.


The Son

⭐️ ⭐️ 

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Anthony Hopkins, Zen McGrath

Writer: Christopher Hampton (Based on Florian Zeller’s play)

Director: Florian Zeller

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

Marvel movies aren’t the only ones that take place in their own universe. Consider The Son, the new Hugh Jackman drama, which unfolds in an alternate reality where nobody — not a pair of super-smart, highly educated parents; not schoolteachers; not even a team of freakin’ psychiatrists — takes it seriously when a mentally ill teenager literally cries out for help, virtually every hour on the hour, for months.

I suppose director Florian Zeller — who wrote the play on which the film is based — is trying to portray the harsh reality that, too often, mental illness goes unacknowledged in families and undiagnosed by professionals.

That’s a noble aim. But, really, when your profoundly depressed son comes to you and says, “Hey, I noticed that gun you’re hiding in the laundry room,” you’d think even the most numb-skulled parent on the planet would think, “Hmm. Maybe I should move that thing.”

I always find it a bit sad when a top-tier cast labors mightily, but in vain, to keep a flawed project afloat. Jackman and Laura Dern do their best as the bedeviled parents, and Vanessa Kirby is affecting as the second wife who is beginning to wonder what she’s gotten herself into. As the titular son, Zen McGrath is asked to do little more than look sad — an oversimplification of his condition that is a disservice to the truly complex and often hidden hell that the clinically depressed endure daily.

As he did in his splendid film, The Father, Zeller provides some affecting set pieces (most notably a remarkable dialogue between Jackman and Anthony Hopkins, who plays his truly despicable dad). And, in the last 10 minutes, he tags on a cool little switcheroo that, if he’d played it out over the entire length of the film, might have provided The Son with a Sixth Sense-class shock.

By the time it comes, though, after two-plus hours we’ve long since given up on these clueless characters having the capacity to surprise us on any level.

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