Inside Film

Grumpy on screen: Why we love curmudgeons

As Tom Hanks is back on screen this week playing a bad-tempered widower in ‘A Man Called Otto’, Geoffrey Macnab looks back at the long line of cantankerous heroes in film and wonders if what makes them appealing is that they don’t care what people think about them

Friday 06 January 2023 06:34 GMT
Tom Hanks as a grumpy widower in the film ‘A Man Called Otto’
Tom Hanks as a grumpy widower in the film ‘A Man Called Otto’ (Niko Tavernise)

The scowl contorts the much-loved actor’s face. There are deep furrows in his brow and a look of misanthropic malice in his eyes. This is Tom Hanks as a grumpy widower in A Man Called Otto – out in cinemas today. In this remake of the 2015 Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove, the sainted star of Forrest Gump is, as journalists have quipped, turned into “Forrest Grump”. He plays a cantankerous, angry and deeply unpleasant man who has given up on life since the loss of his wife. Whether it’s the neighbour’s dog peeing on the pavement or the van driver who parks in the wrong place, he finds almost every minor incident in his life exasperating beyond belief. Otto is like an even more enraged version of Richard Wilson’s Victor Meldrew in the 1990s TV sitcom, One Foot in the Grave.

You might imagine audiences would be repelled by someone as cranky as Otto. In fact, the reverse is the case. Look through film history and you will find audiences continually warming to curmudgeons on screen. Sometimes, this is because the Scrooge-like protagonists belatedly discover the milk of human kindness – and the films end in redemptive fashion, with lots of smiley faces. Hanks’s Otto is a case in point. Instead of killing himself – his original plan, which he bungles – he befriends his pregnant new neighbour (Mariana Trevino) and her young family. In their presence, his emotions thaw, and his optimism and conviviality return.

“Fall in love with the grumpiest man in the world,” the poster for A Man Called Otto encourages audiences. It’s an invitation some viewers are struggling to accept. The film has been receiving distinctly mixed reviews, primarily because critics find it just too schmaltzy.

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