A Man Called Otto started its road to the screen with a lot of built-in success factors: The story is adapted from Fredrik Backman's 2012 novel A Man Called Ove, which became a global bestseller after it was published in English; the novel inspired the 2016 Swedish film of the same name, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But the deck was even further stacked in its favor when Tom Hanks signed on to star as flinty misanthrope exasperated with the world (but who also has a slowly thawing heart).
"I read the book, fell in love with the book, saw the Swedish original movie — and that was great as well — and said, 'This story needs to be told on even on a wider range, because we all have Ottos in our life,'" filmmaker Marc Forster (thus far potentially best known for Finding Neverland) tells Metacritic.
The story follows the eponymous man, who is seemingly intent on isolation and perpetually and annoyed by the shortcomings of the rest of humanity, as he quietly plans to end his own life in the extremely orderly way he's lived it — even as he finds some lively new neighbors slowly but surely inserting themselves into his life.
"I felt the story is so life-affirming and made me laugh and cry that I felt like I just need to make this film," Forster explains. "Like with many stories, I think this can be told in many different cultures and many different movie versions because Otto is a universal character and there could be many different interpretations of that foundation."
In Forster's film, that foundation is largely built upon Hanks, who brings all of his long-honed tool kit — comedy, drama, pathos, and decency — to bear as Otto. Otto's cantankerous rantings against the everyday indignities he takes umbrage with provoke both big laughs and vicarious thrills, and the gradual reveal of his wounded, vulnerable heart stokes an empathetic ache.
"Obviously working with Tom Hanks as a collaborator is an incredible joy," says Forster. "Having him play someone who is grumpy and then ultimately still likable is a thin line."
As Marisol, the young matriarch of a neighboring family that at first rubs Otto the wrong way but soon slowly inches their way into his heart, actor Mariana Treviño shares some of the film's funniest and most emotionally potent scenes with Hanks, and admits that because of his towering reputation and beloved persona she had serious nerves before their first encounter on set.
Still, she says, "it was very exciting to be able to have the opportunity to generate with Tom the emotional space that we were going to film." This included being "silent before the shoot [to] feel with him what we were generating before entering on stage and feel we were connecting and generating this truth that we were both about to share in going in."
"It was just so ritualistic and beautiful and it had that rhythm of just the ritual of the theater, of getting into a reality of connecting that truth inside you and that is generated not only on yourselves," she continues.
Along with Hanks' delicate performance modulation, Forster used all the cinematic tools at his disposal to help the audience connect and empathize with Otto and peer through his misanthropic veneer as they get glimpses of the factors that shaped him. This included a deft editor, emotional score, and blending flashbacks with present-day scenes. The flashbacks, he notes, feature Hanks' real-life son Truman, a cinematographer by vocation who was coaxed into service on-screen, in part because of his strong physical resemblance to his father.
Only sometimes did Forster insert the senior Hanks' image into the flashbacks, in order to bring the audience back to the present.
Surrounding Hanks with a cast of fresh-feeling performers who don't have the name recognition of their Oscar-winning co-star was a shrewd move on Forster's part.
"This is my first Hollywood production and it was so wonderful in so many ways," says Treviño. "Me and Manuel [Garcia-Rulfo], we're so grateful to be able to do these Mexican characters and to put out there part of our identity and who we are as a community.
"The thing with the family that is so strong for us Mexicans, and to put it into the storyline and to get that into the visibility of what is out there...we're all cohabiting and there's a lot of Mexican families here. It's a very strong voice here in the United States — the Latin voice and the Mexican voice," she continues.
A Man Called Otto opens in theaters on Dec. 30.