'A Man Called Otto' Is Saved by a Man Called Tom Hanks

Directed by Marc Forster

Starring Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Cameron Britton, Rachel Keller, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Mike Birbiglia, Truman Hanks

Photo: Niko Tavernise

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Jan 5, 2023

Marc Forster's A Man Called Otto is the cinematic embodiment of Tom Hanks's latter acting career: rarely remarkable but always reliable. It's through this mantra that Hanks's gentle nobility is reinforced, as his stoically amiable "old dad" who's disillusioned with a changing America repeatedly wins audiences over through sheer force of charm. Yet, after a string of films that have essentially retread the same ground, albeit in different contexts (such as the apocalypse in Finch and the American West in The News of the World), it's not hard to conceive of Otto being the proverbial last straw that will finally render Hanks's persona more grating than soothing.

Instead, Otto manifests as a testament to Hanks's ability to delight, uplift and move in spite of his films' glaring shortcomings. In another universe, where he wasn't cast in this remake of an Oscar-winning Swedish film (Ove instead of Otto), it would have been a cloying, face-palming misfire. While Otto does enter those realms, especially when its tragedy is cheaply underpinned by syrupy pop songs, it stays the course, plodding through its familiar character arcs and plot beats with a surprising level of tenderness and catharsis. Though it takes the easy path to sentimentality, there's no denying its mastery of tried-and-true charms.

Otto (Hanks), otherwise known as the "grumpy old bastard" by his neighbours, is a recent widower whose long list of grievances is only equalled by his short temper. Armed with a gruff voice and a brusque demeanour, he lords over his neighbourhood with an embittered resolve, hassling both residents and visitors about their inability to close the main road gate, pathetic parallel parking skills, and refusal to use the recycling bins correctly.

There's seemingly nothing Otto doesn't grumble about — even the cost of the rope he plans to hang himself with after he's forced into retirement. Festering in unprecedented levels of despondency, his plans to join his wife in the afterlife are repeatedly impeded by his new neighbour, Marisol, played sparklingly by Mariana Treviño, an infectious, pregnant ball of raw alacrity that not only pierces Otto's embittered heart but is key to the film's strengths.

Though Otto's encounters with each character differ in emotional resonance, ranging from heartwarming to saccharine, Marisol's presence makes a great foil for her woeful neighbour. She could have been a superficial narrative device, but Treviño's wit elevates Marisol into a character that breathes life into both Otto and the film itself. This central dynamic is also empowered by Hanks and Treviño's natural chemistry, warmly navigating what makes life both brutally tragic and wholly beautiful. It's a tandem that keeps the film afloat, helping it rise above occasional dips into tonal awkwardness, especially when Otto confronts a clown in a scene that feels like it should belong in another movie entirely.

Forster's understated direction and sparse production design complement the story surprisingly well, rendering the snowy streets of the suburb more inviting than Otto's cold, empty home, where traces of a past life drift into the present with both sincerity and solemnity. However, these moments of quiet grief and introspection are diluted by the film's distinct lack of subtlety, hemming it in limbo, between earned emotion and unbelievability. 

It's hard to be immersed in Otto's disenchantment with aging and corporate America when the evil real estate company is called "Dye & Amerika," especially when David Magge's script has Otto lazily explain the evident wordplay to us. Thomas Newman's score, too evocative of his work in American Beauty, does little to focus the film's jumbled take on suburbia. Add on a penchant for over-editing that conveys too much obvious information and Hallmark-esque depictions of Gen Z (and their asinine social media usage), and the film becomes an experience that gets close to mawkishness.

Yet, A Man Called Otto powers through its numerous flaws with pure, unadulterated schmaltz, brimming with a warmth that is impossible to hate. Riding high on its reliable charms, it's another great reminder of Hanks's everlasting quality. While his recent efforts may just be middling on the surface, he proves himself to be the factor that elevates them into a domain they otherwise have no right being in.

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