Looking ahead to the challenges of the new year—hostile weather patterns, divisive politics, the deadly covid wave in China—the movie A Man Called Otto offers a two-hour reprieve. Life is not without problems, but they’re very personal and revolve around one exceptionally cranky older man—recently widowed and forcibly retired—and his interactions with a few neighbors and people in his community. It’s a drama, but one with lots of laughs, and it’s sentimental in the best of ways. In other words, a nice way to begin the New Year.
We first meet Otto (Tom Hanks) in a store buying a length of rope. It’s so he can hang himself, but we don’t know this yet. All we know is that he’s extremely ticked off that the store is going to charge him the price of six feet of rope when he only needs five and that the cashier ringing up his order is one unlucky person. Back at home, because he detests waste, Otto arranges for the electric company to shut off his power before stringing up the noose. He almost succeeds with his plan, but then there’s a commotion outside his window that propels him outside.
Some new neighbors? This doesn’t improve Otto’s misanthropic attitude one bit. The woman, Marisol (Mariana Trevino), is everything he is not. She’s exuberantly warm, friendly, and very pregnant, and worse still, she’s married to a “nitwit” (Otto’s word). Also, they have two young daughters in tow. Soon the couple is knocking on Otto’s door for advice, to borrow a ladder, for a ride to the ER, and even for some child-sitting. For Otto, these are unwelcome intrusions. He’s determined to join his wife, who has died, and there will be other suicide attempts gone awry, arguments with his neighbors, and run-ins with the real estate company that wants to buy up the modest neighborhood of identical row houses where Otto lives. Something’s gotta give, as the saying goes, and that something is a someone and it’s Otto.
This film is a remake of the popular Swedish film A Man Called Ove (2015), which was based on the best-selling Swedish novel of the same name. The American version is set somewhere in the Midwest, but people are people everywhere. Sad-sacks, the misunderstood, the sick or dying–and their opposites. As good as Tom Hanks is in the film, it’s Mariana Trevino as Marisol who bursts with life and steals every scene that she’s in.
A series of short flashbacks shows us Otto as a young man (Truman Hanks, Tom’s son in real life with wife Rita Wilson). Young Otto is socially awkward with few prospects, but he has the good fortune to meet the lovely Sonya, who sees something special in him and marries him.
Most of us have probably known at least one or two ‘Ottos,’ although maybe not quite as extreme. Otto, through his backstory, is a reminder that people’s behavior is often a symptom of problems or sadness we know nothing about. Otto and his neighbors are everyday people with nothing in common except their community. But community, as it turns out, is not just a noun—it’s a verb. An active, miraculous verb when it’s put to good use.
And with that thought, let the New Year begin.