By now, we’ve likely all heard about Marc Forster’s “A Man Called Otto,” in which Tom Hanks plays a grumpy old man. Since he’s playing so far against type, we’re sure Hanks has a lot of fun with this role. Also, as this is a Tom Hanks film, we’re fairly certain the material won’t be too dark – and that Hanks will have some kind of an Ebenezer Scrooge revelation that will enlighten him to the error of his ways and send him down the road to a happy and joyful retirement.
I’m happy to say we’d all be incorrect on that second assumption. Screenwriter David Magee (adapting the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove”) smartly stays away from any life-changing moments – instead opting for not so much a change of heart than a realization of his situation.
Hanks plays the recently retired and widowed Otto Anderson – a man, who by all accounts, was a devoted husband for many years, but who now finds himself wanting no more than to join his wife in the afterlife. The minutiae of day-to-day life is grating on Otto, who worked as an engineer in the automotive industry, and who (perhaps therefore) likes order and structure in his life. Otto plays life by the rules, and expects no less of everyone else. He’s the type who will criticize the UPS driver for parking her truck incorrectly, rather than thank her for the package. He’ll make a stink at the hardware store for charging for rope by the yard when he wants just 5 feet. In Otto’s world, he shouldn’t have to pay for the extra foot of rope.
So while Otto comes off as a grouch, he could best be described as “rough around the edges.” He does have a heart for the marginalized – a trait he inherited from his wife Sonya, as we learn in a series of very well-placed flashback scenes, starring Hanks’ real-life son Colin as young Otto. I typically don’t like the overuse of flashbacks, but here we learn just enough information about Otto’s and Sonya’s early life together, at exactly the appropriate times during the course of the narrative. Sonya is played by Rachel Keller.
We learn Sonya was a teacher who had a heart for those in tough situations – a trait Otto maintains with some of his personal connections, such as a neighbor friend in the process of being evicted from his home, and a local transgendered boy. The side he shows the world is his rough side, but (unlike Ebenezer Scrooge), Otto does have a softer side as well.
We see this softer side develop through his relationship with his new neighbors – a Mexican/American family with two daughters and a son on the way. The parents are played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and in one of the best supporting performances so far this decade, Mariana Trevino. Trevino’s Marisol is the injection of life necessitated by the screenplay. Marisol is the ying to Otto’s yang. She’s the breath of fresh air he needs to cope with the loss of his wife. And she can somewhat relate to him, as she’s recently lost her father.
Marisol wants to know everything about Otto, and Otto is less willing to share anything about his life than darn near any other movie character of recent times. It’s like pulling teeth for her to extract any information from him. But the more she learns (and therefore the more we learn), the more she likes him, and the more we like him. She’s not trying to be nosy; she’s just a very outgoing, loving, hugging individual – exactly the opposite of Otto. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call “A Man Called Otto” a comedy, Trevino’s scenes are often hilarious – including when she goes into labor.
Some of Hanks’ best scenes are those in which he babysits Marisol’s daughters. Otto and Sonya never had any children of their own, and his uncomfortable nature with them is often more than amusing. If there’s anything that can mess up a perfectly planned schedule, it’s the injection of children into the proceedings. And Hanks plays these sequences brilliantly.
I also like the fact that while Otto still takes the morning newspaper, he doesn’t completely shun innovation. He was an automotive engineer, after all. Otto may not understand much about social media, but he knows how to use it to his advantage in his crusade against the large, corporate real estate entity hell-bent on evicting his friend. This is a welcome character trait, in that we realize Otto lives in the present, even as he complains that his best years are in his past.
Which brings me to my only complaint with “A Man Called Otto.” The Hanks character spends a fair amount of time attempting suicide, so that he can join Sonya in the hereafter. His plans go awry at every turn, which is played for laughs, but the gravity of suicide seems out of place in an otherwise inspiring and heartfelt motion picture. This isn’t “Harold and Maude,” in which Bud Cort’s equally ill-fated suicide attempts were the story. Here, Magee’s screenplay could have completely eliminated the suicide angle and been equally as charming and hard-hitting. Furthermore, the Otto character suffers from a heart condition, which will likely eventually take his life. And he spends plenty of time talking to Sonya at her grave in the local cemetery. These facts alone should have been sufficient to capture Otto’s persistent dwelling on his own mortality.
With that caveat, I take great pride in recommending “A Man Called Otto” as the first great film of 2023. Some have complained that while Hanks is certainly good, and while the film is certainly heartwarming, “A Man Called Otto” is an unnecessary exercise – that the last thing any of us need is to see Tom Hanks play a crotchety geezer. I disagree. I enjoyed almost everything about “A Man Called Otto,” and found it supremely entertaining. You’ve probably already put this one on your must-see list. But if not, please do.