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Movie Review: 'Living' and 'A Man Called Otto'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Two cranky old men, two celebrated foreign films, and just in time for Christmas, two remakes starring Bill Nighy and Tom Hanks. Critic Bob Mondello says the films "Living" and "A Man Called Otto" both revolve around a character type we all recognize that this time of year. Dickens called him Scrooge.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We meet Otto, played by Tom Hanks, in a hardware store.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The total is 3.47.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) You charged me for 6 feet of rope.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, yes. It's $0.99 a yard.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) I didn't get 2 yards. I got 5 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We don't charge by the foot. We charge by the yard.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) Ninety-nine cents a yard is 33...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

MONDELLO: If you take a man's measure by how he treats others...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) You charged me $1.98.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're good at math.

MONDELLO: ...Otto comes up short.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know, but I can't put it into the computer the way that you just said.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) What the hell kind of computer can't do simple math?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I got some change. Let me cover that extra $0.33 for you.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) Sir, I do not want your 33 cents.

MONDELLO: He's not any friendlier with new neighbors, even when they come bearing gifts.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I brought you some food.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) Why?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We wanted to properly introduce ourselves because, you know, we're going to be neighbors, I think, so...

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) OK.

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) Bye.

MONDELLO: But her foot is in the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Are you always this unfriendly?

TOM HANKS: (As Otto) I'm not unfriendly.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, OK, you're not. Every word you say is like a warm cuddle.

MONDELLO: There is a reason Otto's a curmudgeon. The recent passing of his wife has left his days empty, so he growls and argues to give himself reasons to go on. Not breaking new ground "In A Man Called Otto," it just wants to be a crowd pleaser, though there are nice variations on the Scandinavian original, "A Man Called Ove" - neighbors who are Black, Hispanic and trans, for instance. Tom Hanks is just the guy to make grumpiness appealing, and with his son Truman Hanks playing the character in flashbacks...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED OTTO")

TRUMAN HANKS: (As Otto) Miss, you dropped your book.

MONDELLO: Director Marc Forster has ensured that sentiment will drive "A Man Called Otto," no matter how prickly its hero. Sentiment is far too showy an emotion for the buttoned-up hero of "Living" - ramrod straight, tailored in bowler hat and pinstripe suit. Bill Nighy is Mr. Williams, a widower toiling in a public works office in post-World War II London. His days heading a staff of six are unvarying and entirely pointless.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

BILL NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) Mr. Rusbridger, why has this D19 come back to us?

HUBERT BURTON: (As Mr. Rusbridger) Mr. Wright (ph) at planning was of the view that a remittance certificate should be attached to it.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) The remittance certificate can only be issued after the D19 is authorized.

BURTON: (As Mr. Rusbridger) Yes. I tried to tell Mr. Wright that, Mr. Williams, but he simply won't have it.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) Then we can keep it here for now.

MONDELLO: He inserts it in the middle of a stack of papers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) It'll do no harm.

MONDELLO: Tasked with shuttling skyscrapers of papers and the people who bring them from department to department...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) Please show the ladies in, Mr. Singh. Mr. Middleton, your turn.

MONDELLO: Mr. Williams might continue this roundelay forever were he not confronted with a medical diagnosis. Six months, maybe nine, says his doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's never easy, this.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) Quite.

MONDELLO: Mr. Williams, reacting as anyone might, heads for the seashore, determined to - he's not sure what, as he tells a louche writer he meets there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) I withdrew this cash and came down here to enjoy myself, but I realized I don't know how.

MONDELLO: Happily, the writer has a few ideas. Still, momentary pleasures are momentary. And when Mr. Williams returns to London, he seeks a more lasting purpose to his time remaining - a reference letter to help a young woman in his office, say. And what about those ladies who've been petitioning his department for months?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) They even sought to offer us a bench to sit on. That's how long we was there.

MONDELLO: Might he actually make the playground they want a reality without, you know, raising his voice or violating rules of decorum?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIVING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Leave it with us. We'll send it down to you once it's ready.

NIGHY: (As Mr. Williams) Actually, I was hoping you might see to it now, and I could take it off your hands straight away.

MONDELLO: South African director Oliver Hermanus, working from a script by Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote "Remains Of The Day," makes "Living" an elegant retelling of Kurosawa's "Ikiru," "To Live." It's brimming with period detail and delicate performances, none more heartbreaking than Nighy's Mr. Williams, who would likely be appalled by Tom Hanks' "Man Called Otto" but who comes to a remarkably similar end slowly, to his own surprise, and almost too late - finding purpose in living. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.