A Man Called Otto is a familiar grouchy tale. Not too far from the likes of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino or even The Grinch himself. One can easily see Tom Hanks’ character Otto yelling at someone to “get off my lawn.”
Unlike those stories, A Man Called Otto (based on the novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman) has more to say about moving forward in one’s life.
Like The Whale, themes involve finding love in a sea of bitterness. But A Man Called Otto begs the audience to see another day, to say hi to their neighbor, and to hang on for hope.
Given the mental health crisis in Hollywood lately and among those hit by the pandemic, it’s a message worth hearing.
The film stars Tom Hanks as Otto, an older man with a bedside manner of gravel. When the film begins, we are introduced to Otto in a department store, attempting to buy five feet of rope. The rope in question is for suicidal purposes. Still, the film approaches the subject humorously as Otto gets into a heated conversation with a Gen Z cashier about the rope cost.
It is a solid introduction as we understand his mindset, mannerisms, and how annoyed Otto is by everyone. If Grumpy Cat were a man, it would be Otto.
A grouchy and empathetic heart
Returning home, he is greeted by his new incoming neighbors, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo of The Lincoln Lawyer) and their two kids. Marisol is a loving and feisty immigrant who is also educated. And after Otto helps them begrudgingly, she tries to win Otto’s friendship by cooking him food.
Otto can be rather unpleasant. But he makes rounds around the neighborhood every morning. As if to protect the neighbors, he calls “idiots” from worse “idiots.” Whether Otto acknowledges it, the neighbors from various backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, etc, bring something good to his life.
A Man Called Otto also possesses an empathetic heart about numerous social issues. Seeded throughout the narrative are commentaries about persons with disabilities with housing issues, a transgender character with family struggles, and an immigrant who made something of herself, with mental health at the forefront of all of it.
The emotional anchor of A Man Called Otto is the neighborly relationship between Marisol and Otto. He keeps trying to end his own life, and Marisol keeps unwittingly interrupting his plans. But someone like Marisol can read between the lines and see Otto has a loving heart under the grouchy exterior.
This is expertly portrayed in a scene where Otto is paying the biggest compliment Marisol has probably heard angrily. Treviño as Marisol is a show-stealer in this movie, executing humor and heart at every turn. She and Hanks have amazing chemistry throughout the film, and she will undoubtedly garner more roles after the release of this film.
Even so, Otto pursues the quest to end his own life. A result of the tragic passing of his wife, to whom he was married for many years.
The topic of suicide is hard to approach lightheartedly, yet A Man Called Otto manages to pull it off. Part of this is due to the writing, and the other half is the sincere performance by Hanks. The writing never dwells in the agony or exploits the sad elements for all they are worth.
Somehow, the film finds levity in these grim scenes because every time Otto tries to end it all, to our relief, something or someone interferes. And Hanks’ performance of exhibiting frustration is handled in a comical way only he could accomplish.
The story itself is somewhat familiar. We have seen this narrative before involving the big lovable grouch who needs the right person to dissolve the crusty shell. It’s a tale that remains infectious under the right hands.
However, we have never seen Tom Hanks in this manner, and it works surprisingly well. He channels Carl from the Pixar movie Up (and arguably has the same plot thread, minus the talking dog.)
Narratively, the only issue with A Man Called Otto is the film’s ending. It’s a bittersweet finale which feels unneeded as much of the outcome was implied leading up to it. The audience had enough information to piece together the fate of certain characters. And it felt like the movie tackled enough emotional elements to allow viewers to use their imagination about the outcome of certain events.
A Man Called Otto reinvents Tom Hanks
Still, A Man Called Otto is a grouchy yet charming experience with messages of choosing life in moments of despair. It’s packed with memorable characters, an empathetic story, and loads of endearing commentary about accepting kindness from others and moving forward when nothing feels right anymore.
This is a rare performance by Tom Hanks, who is mainly known for being the lovable leading man in everything. And watching Hanks channel his grumpy old man is a wonder in itself.
For more reviews, check out our coverage of M3GAN and Wildcat.
A Man Called Otto expands nationwide tomorrow.