‘A Man Called Otto’ Review
A Man Called Otto feels like a recognizable type of entertainment, one in which a conservative-coded gruff local who speaks plain truths and has grown estranged from its community as newcomers have changed it and technology has rendered him obsolete (but not as obsolete as everyone thinks) finds a new place in his diverse neighborhood as the progressive-coded neighbors realize his grit and gumption adds something to their lives as well.
Call it the Gran Torino Effect, or the As Good as It Gets Effect, or even the Archie Bunker Effect, A Man Called Otto falls squarely into this category. A widower who opens the movie railing against a poor cashier whose register only allows him to ring up rope by yards rather than feet, Otto (Tom Hanks) is at the end of his. Forcibly retired by the company he’d worked at for years, estranged from his neighbors, at war with the construction company building ghastly new condos across the street from his longtime abode, Otto has run out of reasons to keep going.
Conspicuously absent from the advertising campaign for Otto is the reason Otto is buying that rope: to hang himself with. He has no reason to go on—no wife, no friends, no work … heck, he doesn’t even like to read—so why bother prolonging the inevitable? The film is structured around Otto’s suicide attempts (hanging, car exhaust, etc.) each of which is interrupted by a community member in need (a saintly immigrant who needs a ride to the hospital, a trans teen who needs a place to stay after his parents kick him out, etc.), giving Otto reason to go on and avoid snuffing it.
You can understand why the studio might avoid highlighting A Man Called Otto as the feel-good suicide flick of the year, but that’s exactly what it is, and damn if it doesn’t work. You don’t even mind that it is designed to flatter the sensibilities of practically everyone watching: At various points we’re shown both the iniquity of social media narcissism when onlookers pull out their phones to livestream Otto saving a man who has fallen onto some train tracks rather than, you know, helping the guy (boo!) and also the great benefit of social media as an equalizer against the dread forces of capitalism, when Otto enlists the aid of a “social media journalist” to highlight the evils of the realty company pushing his elderly neighbors out (yay!).
And you don’t mind because Tom Hanks is our most reliable everyman star, the sort of guy who can do both gruff, put-upon loner and gruff, helpful neighbor with equal skill. It’s funny when he attacks a hospital clown because he’s actualizing so many of our secret urges. Director Marc Forster and casting crew Francine Maisler and Molly Rose have assembled a top-notch team surrounding Hanks; Mariana Treviño is the standout as Marisol, the new immigrant neighbor whom Otto teaches to drive and who teaches Otto how to care about the world again following the death of his wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller, seen in flashbacks).
A Man Called Otto, based on a decade-old Swedish novel that topped the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a movie in Sweden in 2015, has played well in limited release and expands nationwide this week. Those looking for something a bit more intimate and human than most special effects blockbusters have to offer will find much to enjoy here.