By Marc S. Sanders
There’s A Man Called Otto who seems to be liked by everyone except himself. People in his neighborhood happily say hello to him every morning as he shovels the snow off his walkway. They will try to chat with him on their morning jog. He won’t even allow his work, where he was forced to retire, to send him on his way with a celebratory going away party.
On the other hand, Otto prefers to occupy himself with insisting that the UPS truck driver not drive down their block, sniffing out whose dog left behind a present on his yard and scaring off the real estate agent in the fancy BMW who attempts to convince elderly residents to sell their townhomes and move into assisted living. A new family moves in across the street and they appreciate Otto’s grumpy insistence of properly parking their car with a U-Haul trailer attached. What Otto doesn’t appreciate is how one more attempt at a planned-out suicide is foiled by their disruption.
I’m told this late 2022 release is an adaptation of book called A Man Called Ove, which was also turned into a European film that is supposedly better than this picture. I can’t offer an opinionated comparison as I have neither seen that other film nor read the book.
Tom Hanks is the title character in this film from Marc Forster. He’s very good and right for the role. I’m one of the few who find Hanks to be miscast on occasion. Not here though. His performance had me thinking back on a more subdued Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. Hanks has transitioned finally to the older generation of characters that are not as wide eyed with discovery, innocence and gusto that were depicted in films like Philadelphia, Big or Forrest Gump.
Marc Forster is striving to tug at the heartstrings. Flashbacks of Otto when he meets his eventual wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller) hint at what led to his current state of nonstop crankiness. Otto’s a widower but why is he so bitter with himself or any kind person who comes his way? The younger Otto is portrayed by Truman Hanks, one of Tom’s sons in real life. It’s inspired casting, because there is a consistency towards the mannerisms and personality within the two separate performances. Truman Hanks and Rachel Keller pair up nicely as young adults from different backgrounds who convincingly fall in love.
The standout though is the pregnant wife/mother of the new family who’s moved in. Mariana Treviño is Marisol, and she is superb in her comedy as the Hispanic neighbor who is always getting in Otto’s way with prepared home made food to bring over while she relies on the grouch to babysit her children or give her a ride because she doesn’t have a license. Eventually, a terrific scene arrives where Otto is teaching her to drive, and the two characters open up to one another despite their different backgrounds. Treviño carries so much range with her part. She’s ditzy but intelligent, sensitive, and very warm, lovable, and funny. Every time she appears on Otto’s doorstep, Marisol is a new surprise. You might think at first that she’s scatterbrained. When you see her next, she’s intuitive. Otto may think she knows this person from just one or two encounters, but Mariana Treviño’s performance is so well done and beautifully written that even the viewer really doesn’t know her until the climax of the film. If A Man Called Otto had gotten a little more publicity traction upon its release, she could have been an Oscar nominated contender. I think she was definitely worthy of more praise than I could uncover.
The script sets up a lot of questions that carry the film and keep it interesting. Otto’s internal crisis is one thing, but there’s also a neighbor’s mute husband who apparently shares history with the title character. There is also a scheme being plotted out behind this pesky real estate agent who blasts his hip hop music from his luxury car. (TRIVIA: Another son of Tom Hanks, Chet, is the rapper heard on the radio.)
I was never really convinced that A Man Called Otto could be a real-life story, however. Call me a cynic, but the number of sweet natured people all living in one small space seems far-fetched. These happy go lucky folks, including a transgender teen (Mack Bayda, wonderfully likable in his first film role) who was kicked out of his father’s house, find so much positivity out of life. I’m not sure real life lays it on this thick! Sometimes, the side characters appear like walking Hallmark cards.
I also felt uneasy about the suicide theme that is most prevalent throughout the picture. I think I counted four different ways that Otto attempts to end his life (hanging, shotgun to the mouth, jumping in front of a train, carbon monoxide poisoning). Each attempt is interrupted somehow and how it’s done is nothing so inappropriate or spoofed, but it is done with an intent of irony and humor. It started to feel comparable to another foiled attempt by the Coyote trying to capture the Road Runner. Looney Tunes serve a purpose escapist slapstick. Suicide, even when cheerfully disrupted, often doesn’t put a smile on my face.
Otto does go through a character arc that I appreciate though where demonstrations of heroism and soul saving are captured. The ending, while sad, is also quite rewarding. With Marc Forster’s film, I’ve gotten to know a beautiful collection of well-intentioned and thoughtful people who do not give up on trying to rescue one of their own from a life currently mired in misery.
A Man Called Otto is a good film worth watching. The cast is absolutely wonderful and through the performances, everyone seems positively proud of what they accomplished with the final product. I’d be up for seeing this exact same cast perform this script live on stage. Still, I offer a warning of caution. While it is trying to deliver sugary optimism at every turn, it is also coming off a little bit like artificial sweetener.