A Man Called Otto: Sanitized & Americanized Adaptation of the Great Swedish Book & Film

Tom Hanks has been in four “pretty good” movies… According to Tom Hanks. What were the four good movies? Let’s turn to his broad career which poses a good assortment of possible options. Let’s sort by Letterboxd rating: Saving Private Ryan (1998, average score: 4.2); Toy Story (1995, average score: 4.1); and The Green Mile (1991, average score: 4.1). Now we have some data… some data tells us the prime arc of Tom Hanks’ career is from 1991-1998. Now, we sort by popularity: Forrest Gump (1994), Toy Story, and Catch Me if You Can (2002). We can now lock in Toy Story as the intersection between his popularity and his critical merit. Now, by box office numbers: The Da Vinci Code (2006); Forrest Gump; and Angels & Demons (2009).

No, no, this last detail hasn’t helped at all. But let’s hold on to Forrest Gump because the case for Tom Hanks as a populist may be central to his appeal. It feels like we’ve dug ourselves into a hole here. We have some recurring movies and can probably extrapolate each list and find which ones have the most crossover. But that is not nearly confusing enough.

Let’s take an aggregate of the Discord community of The Twin Geeks and see how our outfit would rank his films: Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010); the first three Toy Story movies in order of release; and Road to Perdition. None of us can even remember Tom Hanks in the Elm Street documentary, a gorgeous, hilarious results. These are followed by a few outliers, for a few high-ranking films, but a strong case can be made for the placements of The Green Mile and Catch Me if You Can.

Tom Hanks himself has gone on record claiming his three favorite experiences working on a movie are: Cast Away (2000); A League of Their Own (1992); and Cloud Atlus (2012).

There is also the possibility that Tom Hanks meant the three movies he should be campaigning for this year are his best movies: Elvis; Disney’s Pinocchio; and A Man Called Otto. It seems unlikely but it’s worth noting because that’s the only rational reason to say something like that during a press tour, so they build their own case.

Through this totally non-scientific process, we have determined a solid list of the plausibly “pretty good” Tom Hanks movies:

  • Toy Story (1-3)
  • The Green Mile
  • Forrest Gump
  • Catch Me if You Can
  • Road to Perdition
  • The Da Vinci Code Movies?
  • Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy
  • Cast Away
  • A League of Their Own
  • Cloud Atlus
  • Elvis
  • Pinocchio
  • A Man Called Otto

Ultimately, we must draw our own conclusions from here. What this does convey to us is that there is likely a bolder body of work than Tom Hanks cares to admit. It’s a certain kind of humble brag, right? You can name three of the best movies of the last thirty years and someone may say, but what about these other ten movies? Certainly, this list shows the range and durability of Tom Hanks as a mega-popular king of the American ’90s movie but perhaps reminds us that we’re out of the peak period. The last year can feel like we’ve gone far afield of the actor’s best work.

The good news is that A Man Called Otto, based on the tremendous Swedish literature of Fredrik Backman, is his best work this last year. That’s right, it’s better than his co-lead performance as Colonel Tom Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which has resulted in the memorable moment where Tom Hanks pronounces, “he’s white?!” It’s even better than his ho-hum performance of Geppetto in the cursed Robert Zemeckis movie, which leaves us wishing for the halcyon days of getting stranded with a volleyball or that creepy Christmas film The Polar Express (2004) where Tom Hanks does most of the characters’ motion-capture work and is a total descent into uncanny valley. Better than all of that.

The bad news is it’s not a good movie. Tom Hanks, of course, is really fine. The rest is too saccharine for the text material, the social issues presented too neatly folded into a text that isn’t about them specifically enough to give them credence. Manipulative shortcuts reroute the central character’s narrative through what are now throwaway American tropes. We already have a more authentic movie version, there’s really no need to do that again, but you can imagine there is significantly less need to do a reductive version of that and to Tom Hanksify the premise into such a simple story of neighborly compassion, when there is more to say and feel.

It’s also Tom Hanks’ return to comedy, a whole decade after the last comedy he directed and starred in, Larry Crowne (2004). A Man Called Otto, however, is a different brand of comedy. Call it gallows humor. Hanks’ Otto loses his job and has long become a lonely widower, now intent on ending it all. But his plans all go awry and his far-too-friendly neighbors encroach upon his intended hermitic lifestyle. It is a very giving story about not giving up and how support comes from where you’re least expecting it.

So much is lost in the translation from the Swedish book and the accompanying Swedish movie. It just doesn’t add up to the same effect. Sanitized and Americanized, the characters feel crushed under the weight of the would-be profundity of the source text. Marc Forster’s direction flattens the images and meaning until they are incomprehensible from Backman’s sharply detailed and specific writing. The other thing is that when the film is on Hanks’ Otto, it moves at a steady clip and operates as a formally pleasing Holiday-type movie with tinges of dark comedy. The film however cannot find the right expression in its form for the many flashbacks and the sequencing of them to properly tell the story and the recollected memories of Otto’s past relationships. While useful for dealing with how he got this way, these sequences do not amount to much, and can sometimes spend a lot of time providing background on objects, rather than exploring the interiority of this very interesting character, who would rather inspect his whole neighborhood for code violations than go to therapy.

What we’re saying is that A Man Called Otto sadly is not one of Tom Hanks’ great movies. By that virtue, Elvis and Pinocchio are also eliminated, since he is so much better here. We may be reaching into an aggressively sentimental period of an already populist sentimental actor’s career arc, but the truth is that after Tom Hanks had one of the first very public celebrity bouts of COVID, we’re just so glad to see him back on the screen, even in the strange capacities we’ve born witness to the last year. Hopefully, the breadth of projects means he’s reenergized and willing to make this next stretch of his career count, just like he has in every other period. We’re not saying he ought to go show up in more horror documentaries or The Da Vinci Code reboots, we’re just happy to have him around. Much like Otto, not everyone always knows their absolute worth, or that they have plausibly done more than four “pretty good” things.


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