The other day, after watching the 2015 Swedish movie A Man Called Ove for the first time — an experience punctuated, not infrequently, by both laughs and tears — I looked up Rolf Lassgård, the wonderful actor who plays the title role. It turned out that he’s a big star in Sweden, known particularly for playing the detective Kurt Wallander in several films based on Henning Mankell’s novels. Which means I’ve seen and enjoyed him before — but so many years ago that I didn’t recognize him. And not recognizing him helped. Because this black comedy, written and directed by Hannes Holm and based on the novel by Fredrik Backman, is one of those pictures in which it makes a difference to have an unfamiliar face at the center of the story. Which is one reason why the new English-language remake, though quite affecting, isn’t quite equal to the original.
But first, about that original. When we meet Ole Lindahl, a cantankerous 59-year-old who every day makes the rounds of his small private (but not at all fancy) neighborhood to make sure the gates are locked, the cars parked in the right places, and the trash properly sorted, he’s been working in a railroad yard for 43 years and been a widower for six months. Peremptorily dismissed from his job, he’s utterly unmoored, and, hating pretty much everything about the way the world has changed in recent years, begins a series of attempts to end his life, the first few times by hanging. One is reminded of the suicide of poor old Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption; but the same set of actions that are portrayed in Shawshank as deeply poignant are played here for laughs (albeit dark ones): for time after time, when Ove is busy trying to hang himself, he’s interrupted by his new neighbor, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a young Iranian immigrant.
These days, most women who’ve come to Sweden from Muslim countries wear hijab, have been married by force to their cousins, and would be terrified to show friendliness toward a male neighbor lest they be instantly butchered by their nearest and dearest. Parvaneh is the opposite. Married to an easygoing Swede, with two adorable children and another on the way, she’s an ebullient soul who from the git-go seems to see through Ole’s grumpiness — and, in any event, refuses to let it dampen her chronic joie de vivre. It’s Parvaneh who gradually breaks down his surly exterior and gets him to open up about his past, glimpses of which we’re vouchsafed in a series of flashbacks.
And what we see in those flashbacks is a simple life, but one full of heartbreak. We see 7-year-old Ove (Viktor Baagøe), a winning, wide-eye waif, mourn his mother and learn a lesson in honesty from his father (Stefan Gödicke), who’s incapable of hugging the boy until he almost loses him in a freak accident. Flashing ahead, Ove (Filip Berg) — a callow, earnest youth on the verge of manhood — meets the radiant Sonja (Ida Engvoll), whose vivacity overwhelms his endearing shyness. (One is reminded of the relationship between Robert Donat and Greer Garson in the 1939 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.) They marry, and while expecting a baby enjoy an idyllic vacation in Spain that turns tragic. Every bit of it is gripping — depicted with extraordinary sensitivity and repeated use of gentle humor to evade outright sentimentality.
There’s much more, both in the flashbacks and in the present-day sequences, and it’s all remarkably sweet. But I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that like Flaubert in his perfect little 1877 story A Simple Heart, Holm captures the whole of what most would consider an ordinary life with wit and warmth, discovering its depth of dignity and meaning. Having recently spent a bit of time rewatching and pondering It’s a Wonderful Life, I couldn’t help seeing a bit of a parallel there, too: for Ove is the story of a man who, rescued from the depths of despair — “There was no life before Sonja,” Ove spits out bitterly at Parvaneh, “and there’s no life after her!” — discovers that his seemingly humble life can in fact touch the lives of many others in a consequential way.
A Man Called Ove shouldn’t work. It’s a story that, when summed up, sounds hopelessly familiar, hackneyed to a fair-thee-well; a less expertly executed version of this tale — whose obnoxious ogre of a protagonist turns out to be a good soul suffering from terrible grief — might easily come off as shamelessly manipulative. But in the hands of Holm and her cast and crew, it feels not just fresh but deeply tender: an urgent human document, a beautiful work of art.
And what about the new version of the film, A Man Called Otto? It’s nicely done, for the most part tracking Ove very closely, although it entirely drops Ove’s childhood and omits a couple of the more moving moments — which I suspect the writer, David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi), and director, Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland), feared they wouldn’t be able to replicate without crossing the line into melodrama. I must say I’m impressed that they didn’t give the picture a happy ending — although they did add no fewer than three scenes in which, in accordance with the hoariest of Hollywood clichés, a group of extras breaks into applause in situations in which, in real life, no such thing would ever happen.
Yes, there are a few minor changes, most of which make sense. Instead of Sweden, it’s set on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Ove and Sonja take an ill-fated vacation in Spain; Otto and Sonya visit Niagara Falls. In place of the Iranian immigrant, Parvaneh, we get Marisol, who’s from El Salvador by way of Mexico, and who’s played by Mexican actress Mariana Treviño (Club de Cuervos) with a wonderful brio entirely matching that of Pars in the original. Alas, Rachel Keller, the new movie’s Sonya (this time with a “y”), makes less of an impression than the frankly irreplaceable Engvoll, and Truman Hanks, who is Tom Hanks’s real-life son and who plays Otto as a young man, can’t possibly match Berg; he’s supposed to be almost painfully diffident but merely comes off as a winsome stiff.
There are other, less pleasing changes. Ove grazes lightly against several themes that Otto emphasizes and politicizes. In the earlier film, for instance, Ove is asked to take in a gay teen whose Muslim parents have kicked him out of the house; he’s about to say no when he’s reminded that Sonja, who’d been the kid’s teacher, was always willing to help everybody. And so he gruffly says: “Come in, then.” Otto not only expands this subplot substantially but also transforms the gay teen into a trans teen, Malcolm — who’s played by YouTube “influencer” Mack Bayda, a creator of numerous videos chronicling his/her “transition” from girl to boy.
What the hell is this about? In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks helped make a powerful and enduring statement about the humanity of gay people and AIDS patients. Has Hanks (who co-produced Otto) joined the woke campaign to erase gay people in order to celebrate the ridiculous and destructive transgender trend? In Ove, Ove’s support for the gay kid comes down to that plainspoken but eloquent welcome: “Come in, then”; in Otto, there’s a lot more dialogue on the trans topic, all of it designed to telegraph Tinseltown’s favorite message these days: namely, that nothing could be more virtuous than to affirm a confused teenager’s gender fantasies. Sonya, the kid tells Otto, “was the first to call me by my real name, and she got the other teachers to do it, too.” Oh, dear. When the kid talks about his father’s take on transgenderism (which is identical to that of almost everybody in the real world), Otto replies: “He’s an idiot.” Then there’s Otto’s increasing tendency to work bits of basic Spanish into his conversations with Marisol and her kids, like some studio exec in Beverly Hills out to prove to his gardener how liberal he is.
Yet the movie wasn’t remotely PC enough for many critics. In the Chicago Reader, Dmitry Samarov called it “offensive in its broad-strokes handling of everything from aging to gentrification to racism to gender issues” and equated Otto’s nostalgia for life with Sonya to white-supremacist “chants of ‘You will not replace us.’” Even Rex Reed, of all people, complained that Otto introduces “serious and challenging subjects (multiculturalism, the housing crisis, sexual discrimination, euthanasia, prejudice against immigrants, for starters)” only to dismiss them prontissimo. When did Reed, now 84, jump on the knee-jerk-progressive bandwagon?
At the center of the whole shebang, of course, is Tom Hanks’s performance. Examining his filmography, I discover that I’ve seen him in 25 flicks. Needless to say, he’s a terrific actor. But playing Otto, he pulls certain facial expressions and physical gestures from his bag of tricks that are immediately recognizable, and that constantly threaten to reduce Otto from a living, breathing human being to, well, one more Tom Hanks character. Still, there are a lot worse things to be reduced to. So while it doesn’t quite measure up to the original, this touching story about love and loss, friendship and community, is surely head and shoulders above the usual superhero fare at the multiplex. Want to see great special effects? Check out the Avatar sequel. Want to see something with — and about — real people? Give Otto a try.