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Dead Men Walking: ‘Living’ and ‘A Man Called Otto’ Both Have One Foot in the Grave

Two new remakes translate superior movies into English, for those of you who can't read.

Bill Nighy, Tom Hanks
Promotional stills

After he’s told he has six months to live, a mid-level bureaucrat realizes he’s wasted his life. He tries to seize the day but fails to find pleasure in a drunken spree. He seeks to relive his youth through a platonic but not entirely unromantic fling with a much younger woman. Finally he realizes what he must do to redeem himself before he dies. 

If you didn’t recognize that as the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, you may be the target audience for Living, for which that’s also the plot. (You should also see Ikiru.) Living transfers the story from 1950s Tokyo to roughly the same era in London, but neither director Oliver Hermanus nor screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro have much to add to the 1952 Japanese classic beyond a change of setting. This film exists for a simple and not dishonorable reason: as an overdue showcase for the talents of 73-year-old Bill Nighy.

Nighy’s Mr. Williams is a pinstripe suit and bowler hat made bloodless flesh who presides over the steadfastly inefficient Public Works department. Here his primary job is to misdirect petitioners to other departments, which in turn do the same until the concerned citizens get frustrated and go home. (Only a group of ladies who want a waste site turned into a playground refuse to take the hint.) It’s a career custom-made to breed future regrets, and when stomach cancer dooms Williams, his long-postponed reckoning comes a-calling.

To say Nighy carries this film may be just to acknowledge what he’s meant to do, but the depth and subtlety of his performance has nothing of Oscar showboatery about it. His Mr. WIlliams is a stiffly preserved figure, tall and intimidating in spite of his hollow core—a contrast to the stooped Takashi Shimura, a clearly broken man, who haunted Ikiru as Watanabe. Nighy has regularly played lighter character roles for much of his film career, and that expertise carries over here: Williams is like a supporting part in someone else’s story suddenly thrust center stage and required to play the leading man.  

The rest of the cast is also top notch. Tom Burke, as the Virgil to Williams’s Dante, guiding the proper middle-class functionary on his descent into debauchery, brings that same louche presence of a spoiled wastrel that he did to his much darker role in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. Aimee Lou Wood, who you might recognize from the wonderful British teen comedy Sex Education, is bubbly but level-headed as Miss Harris, the young woman Williams desperately latches onto.

At its best, Living shows that this tale is, if not universal, able to cross geographical barriers—in that era, men across the globe had settled into a postwar malaise. In fact, Living is a solid little movie about a late-life epiphany if you can keep from comparing its no-more-than-professionally filmed look to Kurosawa’s perfectly framed and blocked original. But I can’t. With its shots of city streets and bustling pedestrians burnished to a postcard brightness, Living makes you feel like you’re seeing ’50s London. But Kurosawa makes you feel like you’re experiencing ’50s Tokyo. If Williams finds a reason to justify his existence, Living has a much harder time doing so.

Oh, and did I mention that you should see Ikiru?

***

Tom Hanks is hardly in need of another showcase for his talents, and frankly, neither am I, but A Man Called Otto exists anyway. America’s most (theoretically) likable star is coming off quite an annus horribilis: Fortunately for him, his miscasting as Col. Tom Parker in Elvis was overshadowed by the film’s commercial and critical (I don’t get it) success, and we’ve all probably already forgotten that he played Gepetto in Disney’s live-action Pinocchio. Time for a safe role that makes safe money with an Americanized update of the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove.  

As the ornery Otto, Hanks is a widower ushered unwillingly into early retirement, which allows him to commit full-time to his true passion: scowling. Otto patrols his neighborhood, berating his neighbors for mild infractions of rules only he cares about, then places flowers on his wife’s grave and complains about the state of the world. Somehow this is a less-than-fulfilling life, so Otto tries and—despite meticulous planning—fails to kill himself on multiple occasions, repeatedly thwarted by bad luck and bad timing. (These suicide attempts are played for laughs, so it’s good that almost no one on Twitter will ever see this movie.)

As with Living, the memory of an earlier film lurks behind Otto. Though Hannes Holm’s pleasant enough A Man Called Ove is no classic, this isn’t a story you need to hear twice. Every grumpy old man is grumpy in the same old tedious ways, and because Hanks is Hanks, his bid to edge Clint Eastwood out of the surly codger market never seems like anything more than a protracted bit. Otto belittles young hardware store clerks. He anally re-sorts the neighborhood’s recycling and picks up cigarette butts. He barks at anyone enjoying themselves, and often understandably, since most anyone under 40 is presented as a nitwit or an incompetent.

Because it is an unshakable tenet of modern Hollywood that all evil, unpleasant, or mean characters would be sympathetic if only we knew their whole life stories, we also see Otto’s early years in flashbacks, where he’s played by Hanks’s son Truman (aw, why not Chet?). After Otto’s all-too-sweet meet cute with his wife-to-be Sonya, we follow the couple from bliss to calamity. And because this is a movie about redemption, things change for the coot when his new Latina neighbor, Marisol, her hapless husband, and her two cute kids rope him into their lives. Turns out the old guy’s weakness is that he can’t stand to see things done badly, so he gets sucked into helping people despite himself. Oh, Otto! 

Despite its emotionally heavy plot, Living retains its propriety of its cultural moment, its upper lip barely quivering. (You’ve never seen a bunch of people more in need of the Beatles.) But Otto exists solely to douse us in sentiment. And though its first half (maybe two-thirds) is an extended set-up, the sappy conclusion, I regret to say, does its dirty work more effectively.

Maybe you’re enough of a monster that you can resist Hanks playing with luchador action figures as he babysits Marisol’s kids, but I’m not. And as villains go, evil real-estate developers make for better ones than most of the alternatives. When the neighborhood rallies against these capitalist interlopers, Otto finally finds his place in an extended community. Inspirational! Who knows, if Otto can turn his life around, maybe Hanks will find his way back to a decent role again someday too.

GRADES

Living — B

A Man Called Otto — C+

Living opens this week in area theaters. A Man Called Otto has already been released.