By Dwight Brown
NNPA News Wire Film Critic
Can’t they all just get along? Apparently not, and the instigator is Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks), a grumpy old man with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge in his back packet.
All might be well in their comfy suburban Pittsburgh, PA community, if Otto didn’t spread the hurt he feels to others. He’s also a bit OCD. Things must be in order, people must follow the rules and if not, anger, threats, yelling, pouting and put downs ensue. It’s a bit much.
Someone with a short fuse would punch him. But the characters in this adaptation of a 2012 New York Times Bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman circle around him. Like an extended family.
Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, World War Z) and screenwriter David McGee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi) weren’t the first to attempt to transform this good read to a viable movie. That feat was accomplished by writer/filmmaker Hannes Holm with his 2015 Swedish film of the same name. But here we are, in an American housing development with rules and regulations where Otto thinks he’s the town sheriff.
His misery is spread equally among the residents and any interlopers who dare drive down the complex’s private street. He admonishes those who disobey: “You cannot use this road without a permit!!!” Otto becomes particularly unglued when a young couple gets lost and is looking for their new rental apartment.
The husband, Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Netflix’s The Lincoln Lawyer), can barely drive and finds parking his car with its U-Haul trailer impossible. His very pregnant wife Marisol (Mariana Treviño) tries to guide him. Leave it to Otto to insert himself into their mini drama and park the vehicle himself. That’s how they meet on a fated day. Bossy neighbor and newbie residents.
It seems like you’re watching a series of setup shots clumsily pulled together. There is no flow. Going from scene to scene has all the finesse of an awkward TV drama and not the polish of a well-made feature film. As the characters pile up, including Otto’s wife (Rachel Keller) and her former student (the very charming Mack Bayda), the direction pulls them forward but not gracefully. It’s like methodically putting pieces of a puzzle together that’s never more than a fuzzy picture.
There are very few sets and locations. Just enough for production designer Barbara Ling and set decorator Michael J. Amato to depict everyday ‘burb life. Just enough characters for costume designer Frank L. Fleming to cloth them in blue-collar shirts, pants, dresses and coats that further extend their personalities. The score swells at the right times because composer Thomas Newman makes that happen. Cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser captures the string of vignettes well. There’s a rhythm to it all, orchestrated by editor Matt Chesse who clips scenes at the right time and makes the array of flashbacks discernible.
It’s hard to extremely love or hate anything on view. The plot device that breaks out of that tedium involves the central character hiding a secret that is deeper than the impatience, vitriol and condescending mood swings he displays. Otto is in so much pain that death might be a release. That’s where this maudlin small-town story gets its emotional power. Otto is on a ledge, crying for help in the most inappropriate ways. Marisol: “Are you always this unfriendly?” He needs a savior. His crisis and inability to articulate his peril is what will keep audiences intrigued.
Back in the day, Hanks was the odd one on TVs Bosom Buddies, then the mermaid’s lover in Splash. It’s been a long journey, a long career. Now, he’s the Oscar-winning elder statesman playing a senior citizen in distress. His deliberate, determined way of walking, his repulsion at the sight of a stray cat and the resentment that swirls around him is Hanks getting under Otto’s skin, and brilliantly so, for 2h 6m. Watching him do his work is a treasure.
Treviño as the annoying new neighbor is the pesky mosquito Otto needs. Juanita Jennings (Runaway Jury) and Peter Lawson Jones (White Boy Rick) play a couple who have history with Otto, and their subplot adds dimension. Cameron Britton as Jimmy the annoying jogger provides comic relief. Truman Hanks, Tom’s son, portrays the younger Otto at a time when nepotism is the talk of Hollywood. He doesn’t embarrass himself. He doesn’t distinguish himself.
For every old miserable codger in the world today, there’s a backstory. In this case that grump is part of a group of lost souls coalescing. Some at the end of life’s journey. Some at the beginning. But all are redefining what the word “family” means and making the term “extended” totally irrelevant.
Despite the film’s flaws, what audiences will take away is a humanizing experience by a group of misfits who learn that sometimes just getting along can be lifesaving.