Have you ever watched a film that you knew in your heart of hearts was not very good? That it was filled with endless tropes and a way-too-predictable storyline, and yet somehow you found yourself in love with the characters and would follow them anywhere? Consider my surprise after seeing A Man Called Otto, which had a trailer set to what I could only call “Movie Theater Repellant Mode”. It had everything I detest in previews: stupid cat reaction shots, people yelling at each other over things like bad parking jobs, and the not so subtle hint that you’re about to experience something cloying on a whole new level. Cut to me sitting there watching the end credits and finding myself ugly crying with that figure eight mouth Laura Dern tends to get when she’s really, really upset.
Based on Fredrik Backman’s novel, “A Man Called Ove”, which also resulted in the 2015 Oscar-nominated Swedish film of the same name, the Finding Neverland team of writer David Magee and director Marc Forster have given us one of those highly mainstream Hollywood studio films that they don’t seem to make anymore. I kept thinking of The Accidental Tourist while watching and realizing I haven’t seen a film like that since it warmed my cold, dead heart way back in 1988. Stories of grief-stricken people surrounded by a quirky cast of characters designed to melt their hearts are more likely to end up on the Hallmark Channel than in a multiplex. Well, if you’re like me, and you cherish the experience of crying in the dark with your fellow movie lovers instead of alone at home as you sadly flick your lamp on and off, then get out of the house and go see this one.
Tom Hanks, the Jimmy Stewart of his generation, stars as Otto, the grouchiest curmudgeon this side of Clint Eastwood’s Walt “Get off my lawn!” Kowalski. When we first see him, he’s complaining to a cashier at a hardware store who won’t sell him the exact amount of rope he needs. As deftly played by SNL’s Please Don’t Destroy standout, John Higgins, he’s intimidated and exasperated by Otto, which will turn into a recurring motif throughout the film. Otto has deep wells of grief which he takes out on almost everyone he encounters, from neighbors walking their dogs to unsuspecting delivery drivers who dare to park on his gated stretch of street.
Of course, someone will come along who will make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes, or in this case, a whole cavalcade of characters will take up the cause. From a highly empathetic trans student (Mack Bayda) of Otto’s late wife to an elderly couple (Juanita Jennings and Peter Lawson Jones) who have a storied past with our protagonist, Otto’s defense mechanism of bridge burning meets its ultimate match in the form of new neighbor Marisol (a hugely winning Mariana Treviño ), who along with her husband and two children, with a third on the way, guilelessly kill Otto with kindness. Marisol intuitively seems to know exactly what Otto needs to get him out of his depression, resulting in their prickly yet truly endearing relationship.
Where this is all heading can easily be gleaned by anyone who has ever heard a story of any kind, but the prickliness in Hank’s wonderfully modulated turn took me by surprise. His best performances, for me, have always had just a hint of simmering rage to them, and his Otto, keeps his walls up and his demeanor tightly coiled. This helps undercut the sentimentality at the core of this particular tale, and is largely why it worked so well for me. Further, scenes like Treviño’s hilarious reaction to finding out about a serious medical condition, kept the pap at bay.
We get pieces of Otto’s tragic past sprinkled throughout with Hank’s own son Truman sweetly, if a little flatly, playing his character as a young man. It’s in these flashbacks where we meet Sonya (a lovely Rachel Keller), whose story, filled with trauma as it is, contributes to Otto’s suicidal ideation. The original film version delved more deeply into Otto’s childhood and his relationship with his father, which the current film largely jettisons. Also gone is the voiceover and two key characters have been combined into one, which contributes to a stronger emotional connection. Magee also connects the dots to several loose plot threads which originally did not have much weight. That first film, while sweet and touching, rushed through its final act, leaving me pleased but not moved to the convulsive fits I burst into with the new one. In the prior film’s favor, however, is a truly dynamic performance by Felip Berg as the young Otto. Truman Hanks doesn’t exhibit as much range and his lack of experience shows at times. Luckily, unlike Berg, he’s used sparely, perhaps to cover up these flaws.
The remainder of the cast, while uniformly solid, includes such standouts as Cameron Britton as an overly friendly, constantly exercising neighbor, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Marisol’s slightly dim husband, and Mike Birbiglia as a truly evil real estate developer. But make no mistake, Hanks, and especially Treviño, own this film. Her portrayal, while laced with a surplus of comedic beats, builds in power as she gives her character such a winning specificity. Their chemistry sparks what could easily have been a predictable slog.
Much like last year’s Coda, I feel A Man Called Otto has the ability to give mainstream filmmaking a good name. This year has seen some fascinating experimentation with the storytelling form, whether from the elliptical style as seen in Tár and Aftersun, the unconventional structure of Triangle of Sadness, or the thousand shots per minute onslaught of Everything Everywhere All At Once. Yet here we have an old school Hollywood film which can win our hearts, and that seems all too rare these days.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
A Man Called Otto opens in select theaters on December 30th, 2022, and goes wide on January 13th, 2023.