Seems like only yesterday (because it was only yesterday) that we were writing our review of “Living,” a small and warmhearted gem starring one of our finest veteran actors in a well-crafted and emotionally involving remake of a film about a widowed curmudgeon who begins to grow and change after experiencing some major life setbacks.
Now comes “A Man Called Otto,” a small and warmhearted gem starring one of our finest veteran actors in a well-crafted and emotionally involving remake of a film about a widowed curmudgeon who begins to grow and change after experiencing some major life setbacks.
The good news is, just as Bill Nighy carries the day through some admittedly contrived and melodramatic developments in “Living,” Tom Hanks does the same with “Otto,” which wears its heart on its sleeve and can be a little soft and gooey at times. But it wins us over in the end, thanks in large part to Hanks delivering the umpteenth memorable performance in his remarkable career, and some breakout supporting work from the crackling good supporting cast.
With both films, we’re pretty sure where the story is going to take us almost from the get-go, and yet the journey is filled with wry humor, universal insights into the human condition, and a number of moments when you’ll have to dry your eyes and shake it off.
Directed by the versatile Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “World War Z”) and inspired by the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove” (which was based on the bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman), “A Man Called Otto” opens with a series of scenes establishing Hanks’ Otto as that one guy in the office or on your block who is always complaining about people not following the rules, who greets your friendly hello with a grunt or a sharp remark, who thinks everybody in the world is an “idiot” and he’s the only one left who doesn’t cut corners and plays by the rulebook and minds his own damn business. In many cases, e.g., when Otto gets into a dispute at a big-box hardware chain store over a ridiculous corporate policy about the pricing of a few feet of rope, Otto isn’t wrong — but you want to take him aside and say: Otto, just let it go. It’s not worth it, man.
Spoiler alert: Otto never just lets things go, whether he’s barking at a woman for letting her dog urinate on his lawn, chastising a neighbor for his too-tight exercise outfit, yelling at a delivery truck driver for unauthorized parking — or telling a stray cat to leave him alone, and we all know that stray cat isn’t going to leave him alone. Recently forced out of his managerial engineering position and now retired, Otto has nothing but time on his hands, and he spends much of that time patrolling his gated neighborhood in an unnamed Rust Belt town (“Otto” was filmed in Pittsburgh), growling about bicycles that aren’t parked in the rack, garbage that hasn’t been properly sorted into the recycling bin, etc., etc.
Not that Otto plans to be long for this world; we learn he has purchased that stretch of rope because he intends to hang himself. Since the recent passing of his beloved wife, Otto has lost the will to go on.
Director Forster and screenwriter David Magee weave in a number of supporting players (maybe one too many, as the subplots sometimes take us away from the main themes) and fill in Otto’s story via flashbacks, with Hanks’ son Truman playing the young Otto and Rachel Keller sparkling as Otto’s wife Sonya, who clearly brings out the best in Otto. In present day, Otto can’t escape the constant visits from his new neighbors, Marisol and Tommy (Mariana Treviño and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who have two adorable young daughters and are expecting a third child. Otto can’t even find the right moment to kill himself, what with these pesky people constantly stopping by to enlist his assistance or to drop off a homemade Mexican dish. Occasionally we get some hints Otto has some unenlightened views on race and culture, but that’s quickly dismissed when we learn Otto’s real intolerance is reserved for those who won’t help others, who judge and condemn people who aren’t like them. There’s nobility deep inside him.
One of the joys in “Otto” is seeing how most of the people Otto growls at, from his colleagues on his last day of work to the Generation Z employees at that big-box store to his neighbors old and new, refuse to take the bait and do battle with Otto. They react to his sharp edges either by shrugging it off or refusing to believe that’s the real Otto. (This, of course, drives Otto crazy.)
Mexican stage and screen actress Mariana Treviño is spectacularly good as Marisol, who at first glance might seem like an unorganized mess but is actually a brilliant, vibrant, loving, constantly-in-motion life force. Even though Marisol is the one asking Otto to lend her a ladder or teach her to drive or watch the girls so she and Tommy can have a date night, she doesn’t need Otto’s help, not really. She’s saving him.