Movie Review: A MAN CALLED OTTO – predictable to a fault, with one-dimensional, annoying characters, but survives on Tom Hanks’s touching performance.

man called otto

Our generation’s Jimmy Stewart is back. Tom Hanks doesn’t seem like he’s going to throw in the towel any time soon, and most people wouldn’t complain too much about that. I guess I’m one o them – though I wouldn’t say I’m an ardent fan, I’ve liked most movies of his that I’ve seen, and I’ve enjoyed his performances too. While he hasn’t been that adventurous in his choice of roles, that hardly makes him unique in Hollywood. Most actors end up playing it safe one way or another. In A Man Called Otto, Hanks doesn’t quite play against type, and from the trailer, you all know how this movie will develop. It’s no spoiler for me to tell you you’d be pretty safe in your assumptions.

If you don’t know, A Man Called Otto is the American remake of the 2015 Swedish movie A Man Called Ove, which is itself from the book of the same name by Fredrik Backman. I haven’t read that book, nor the movie, so I can’t measure the Tom Hanks version against them for this review.

Like you, astute viewer, I kind of suspected how the movie was going to play out from the trailer. Grumpy widower Otto has the rough edges sanded off by his interaction with the friendly people around him. It’s a story as old as the hills. Sometimes it’s done well (As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson), sometimes poorly, as in, well, A Man Called Otto.

Now, it must be said, this is exactly the kind of movie the late Robin Williams would have starred in in the latter part of his career, and likely the schmaltz would have been poured on like molasses. Williams couldn’t seem to break away from those kind of roles after Patch Adams, unlike Hanks, who made a career out of being America’s Mr. Nice Guy. There’s something about Hanks that brings out the happy vibes in people. He plays people you tend to like or respect, so in that aspect he’s just like Jimmy Stewart. Who else would you have wanted to be in a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life, Tom Cruise? For five decades, Hanks has been the stand-up guy. The steady, kinda boring guy that keeps things together. He’s not gonna sign you up for a Ponzi scheme, he’s not gonna try to bang your wife, he probably won’t even get a speeding ticket, but he’s got that face you want to see at the front door after a long drive or has that voice telling you things are gonna be fine the day you lose your job. He’s that friend we all wish we had at some point in our lives.

In A Man Called Otto, we don’t see that Tom Hanks for a while. We see a micromanaging jerk, a Ken, in today’s parlance. He watches and waits for someone to break the rules at his townhome neighbourhood, then he unloads on them. In the first scene of the movie, he belittles a couple of teens who work in a hardware store. When Hispanic neighbours Marisol and Tommy move in to his neighbourhood, he loses patience with them at every turn. He’s a real jerk, and would make it onto lots of Tik Toks these days getting up in people’s grills about mixing recyclables, leaving bikes unattended. Not parking correctly. But you know this is a Tom Hanks character, and you’ve seen the trailer, so you know that there’s a reason for his behaviour, and it’s related to his dead wife. Unlike the Kens and Karens of today’s world, A Man Called Otto gives you insight into why Otto acts how he does.

I said earlier that A Man Called Otto is a poor example of the grouch-turned-nice-guy trope, and boy is it ever. Taking Hanks out of the equation and not changing anything else about the movie, it becomes a real piece of crap, for big reasons, most of which relate to the characters around them. While feisty Marisol (Mariana Trevino) has the second biggest part, she’s simply an amped up version of the others that live in Otto’s neighbourhood. Relentlessly upbeat, to the point where they’re nothing more than one-dimensional ciphers, existing only to move the story from one plot point to another. Some of them are given backstories that seem like character depth, but they have no more life than any video game side character. They’re there to shepherd Otto from one state of being to another, and every last interaction Otto has with them is so obviously phony on the part of screenwriter David Magee, that all it did was make me roll my eyes in exasperation. One character, Marisol’s husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) is so ridiculously limp and superfluous to every scene he’s in, there’s literally no reason he should have been kept in the movie at all. I’ve rarely seen such a pointless character in all my years of watching movies. There’s also a Trans character, whose inclusion feels forced enough that it just seemed like a box to check in the early development of the story, but it’s a safe Trans character, only identifiably Trans because the character says so. But this character, like the others, are mere stepping stones to Otto’s eventual, inevitable transformation.

Now, it may seem that I hated this movie, but like I said, it has Tom Hanks in it. And what you get from Hanks, you can’t really get from any other actor, because as cliché ridden as this movie is, as annoying as most of the other characters are, as predictable as the movie is, Hanks brings a real piece of humanity to it. It feels genuinely heartwarming, and when you understand why Otto is who he is (through a series of Hallmark-quality flashbacks, where Hanks’s son Truman portrays the younger Otto, in a not particularly convincing performance), you want this guy to come out of the darkness. You’re pulling for this guy to want to come into the world of the living again, to find the happiness that’s been missing for years. Because Otto is a Tom Hanks character, that’s why. There’s no other reason needed. I’m a cynical guy – you might have noticed during this review! – but inside me there’s still the guy that loves a good redemption story. Is there a better one than A Man Named Otto? Sure there are, but they don’t all star Tom Hanks.


© Andrew Hope, 2023


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